The anti-terrorism prosecution of France opened an investigation into four major fashion retailers, suspected of profiting and covering up “crimes against humanity” by using forced labor by Uyghurs in China.
The investigation by French prosecutors began last month following accusations that the four companies – Inditex, owner of Zara; Uniqlo; Skechers; and SMCP, which owns brands like Sandro and Maje, had profited from human rights crimes in China’s Xinjiang region, a French judicial official confirmed on Friday.
The investigation follows a lawsuit in April against the same four companies by human rights groups and a Uyghur woman who said she was imprisoned in Xinjiang.
The case highlights the issues facing giant fashion retailers who source clothing made around the world. About one in five cotton garments sold globally contain cotton or yarn from Xinjiang, and many well-known names in the fashion industry are increasingly being watched for possible links to the region – and for other forced labor abuses that have taken place in their supply chains.
China has denied all charges of human rights violations in the region.
Inditex and Uniqlo strongly denied the allegations made in the complaint. Skechers said he would not comment on any pending litigation. SMCP did not respond to a request for comment.
William Bourdon, the lawyer for human rights groups, said the investigation would be a rare opportunity to force fashion companies to account for their profits.
“This investigation confirms that it is possible to hold companies to account that enrich themselves through human rights violations and then import their product into countries like France,” said Mr. Bourdon. The groups that lodged a complaint are Sherpa, the Ethics on Etiquette collective and the European Uyghur Institute.
The groups’ trial is largely based on the findings published in a report by the Australian Institute for Strategic Policy in March 2020, among other documents, said Bourdon. In addition to human rights violations in Xinjiang, the report identified 83 foreign and Chinese companies, including fashion brands, which it says have directly or indirectly benefited from the use of Uyghur workers outside Xinjiang by the through potentially abusive labor transfer programs.
“We hope cases like this will be seen in other countries soon as consumers become more aware of the exploitation and human suffering in fashion supply chains,” said Mr. Bumblebee, “and warn brands that they could court legal and reputational disaster if they fail to clean up their actions.
Numerous international clothing brands, including Burberry, Uniqlo, H&M, Nike and Adidas, pledged last year to boycott cotton from Xinjiang, but they have since been the target of boycott calls from Chinese consumers who have seized cotton waivers as an attack on China. .
In response to the survey, Inditex and Uniqlo both reiterated their commitment to human rights.
“At Inditex, we have zero tolerance for all forms of forced labor and have established policies and procedures to ensure this practice does not take place in our supply chain,” the company said in a statement Friday. . “Inditex carries out rigorous traceability checks and we intend to cooperate fully with the French authorities to confirm that the allegations are unfounded.”
A Uniqlo statement said the company was “committed to protecting the human rights of people in our supply chains” and that none of its production, fabric or spinning partners were located in Xinjiang. .
“Although we have not been informed by the authorities, if and when we are informed, we will fully cooperate with the investigation to reaffirm that there is no forced labor in our supply chains,” did he declare.
Uniqlo lost an appeal to U.S. customs in May after a shipment of men’s shorts was seized over alleged violations of a Xinjiang cotton ban.
In recent years, Chinese authorities have used coercive labor programs and mass internment camps to try to turn up to a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim minorities into model workers who are obedient to the government. Communist Party. Inmates at the camp are forced to undergo vocational training, and some go on to work in factory jobs with little or no pay.
In his final months in office, President Donald J. Trump added increasingly restrictive measures against Xinjiang, including sanctions against dozens of companies doing business there and a ban on Xinjiang. import cotton from the region, citing the widespread use of forced labor. Activists have worked to raise awareness, including Raphael Glucksmann, a member of the European Parliament who has created social media campaigns and recruited celebrities to build support in the West for the Uyghur people.
“This is the very start of a long process, but it shows multinationals that the page on impunity is turning,” Glucksmann said following the announcement of the investigation this week. . “I hope that with the specter of this legal action, we will be taken even more seriously by the big brands, who will see forced labor not only as an image blow, but potentially also as a real financial blow and criminal as well. “
Legal inquiries in France can take months or even years, with many twists and turns that do not always necessarily lead to a trial.
Mr. Bourdon said it remains to be seen what penalties could be imposed on brands if they were to be tried and found guilty.
“Whether it’s compensation, fines or whatever, it’s up to the judge to decide,” he said.