European fashion retailers H&M and C&A are investigating allegations that prison laborers in China were used to make packaging both companies use. Minnesota-based technology company 3M was also named in the report, and is also conducting an investigation into the allegations.
In a Financial Times article last week, Peter Humphrey, a British corporate investigator and journalist, alleged that during the 23 months he spent in a Chinese jail beginning in 2014 for allegedly obtaining private records of Chinese citizens and selling the information he gathered to clients, including drug maker GlaxoSmithKline Plc, he saw prisoners making products for H&M, C&A and 3M.
“The prison was a business, doing manufacturing jobs for companies,” Humphrey wrote in the article. “Our men made packaging parts. I recognized well-known brands, 3M, C&A, H&M.”
Humphrey also said he saw the prisoners making textiles and components, but did not name the companies whose products he saw.
According to Humphrey, the inmates earned roughly $19 a month, a fraction of the average wages in China’s manufacturing industry.
All three companies have been quick to respond to the allegations, claiming they take the accusations very seriously and that the aforementioned labor practices are in complete violation of the way they conduct business. Each are looking into the report, but had not said whether they were true at press time.
“We have a zero tolerance policy for any form of modern slavery, including forced, bonded or prison labor,” Jeffrey Hogue, C&A’s chief sustainability officer said. In his statement, Hogue also noted that the privately held company owned by Swiss-based Cofra Holding AG would immediately terminate its relationship with the supplier if it’s found in violation of the company’s code of conduct.
H&M requires its supplier factories to sign an agreement against unfair labor practices before it agrees to work with them. Past reports of prison labor have provoked the Swedish company to remind certain suppliers that it’s firmly against prison labor. A spokesperson for the fast fashion retailer said the company will not tolerate any violation of its business policies.
“It is completely unacceptable placing manufacturing into prisons and it seriously violates the regulatory framework that our suppliers must follow,” the H&M spokesperson said. “A failure to comply would immediately lead to permanent termination of our business contract.”
Like the two retail giants, 3M also has policies prohibiting the use of forced labor.
“3M does not engage or participate in exploitative working conditions, and we are not aware of any 3M suppliers in China using prison labor,” a spokesperson said.
Humphrey did point out in his statement that it was entirely possible the companies may not have been aware of the prison labor practices, as it’s not uncommon for factories with big-brand clients to subcontract their business out to other factories.