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Inditex, Uniqlo, Skechers Battle Forced Labor Allegations

A group of nonprofits and a former Uyghur detainee have filed a complaint with the public prosecutor’s office in Paris to accuse some of the world’s biggest fashion companies for allegedly “encouraging and profiting” from the forced labor of Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), whether directly or indirectly.

Brands targeted include Zara owner Inditex, Sandro and Maje owner SCMP, Skechers and Uniqlo.

Sherpa, the Collectif Ethique sur l’étiquette and the Uyghur Institute of Europe, who are represented by the law firm Bourdon & Associés, wrote in a statement Monday that the complaint is meant to expose the “impunity” of multinational businesses that subcontract part of their production to the northwestern region or market goods using cotton cultivated there, “thus knowingly taking advantage in their value chain of the workforce in a region where crimes against humanity are being perpetrated.”

The complaint, which is supported by Members of European Parliament Raphaël Glucksmann and Reinhart Butickhofer, along with the World Uyghur Congress, is just the first of a series of filings that the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) will be submitting in other European countries in the coming months, the organizations said.

This “planned series,” they added, “demonstrates that this is not an issue of individual companies but demonstrates how closely and systematically European businesses are involved in the allegedly systematic and state-sponsored forceful exploitation of labor in the XUAR region,” where millions of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim minorities are believed to be held in mass internment camps, where they might be marshaled into low-skilled jobs, such as cotton picking or the production of textiles and apparel.

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“Europe is often quick to criticize China for human rights violations. But European companies finally have to admit–and end–their own involvement in these international crimes,” Miriam Saage-Maaß, head of ECCHR’s business and human rights program, said in a statement. “We highly welcome the complaint filed in France today. But this problem is not unique to French garment companies or retailers. All across Europe, the textile industry benefits from the suffering of the Uyghur population. It is mandatory to not only end these practices, but also hold companies to account.”

A December study by the Center for Global Policy estimates that half a million Uyghurs are forced to pick cotton by hand through a state-sponsored “poverty alleviation” scheme. Other mass labor-transfer programs install Uyghurs from Xinjiang in factory jobs across China, with the purpose of reducing their population density and “influenc[ing], fus[ing] and assimilat[ing] Uyghur minorities” into the dominant Han culture, according to one leaked Chinese document. ” Several organizations and governments, including the United States, have labeled Beijing’s “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, [a protected group],” as “genocide” under the United Nations Genocide Convention.

A spokesperson from Skechers told Sourcing Journal that the footwear maker doesn’t comment on pending litigation. In a statement published last month, Skechers said that audits of the factories it works with, including Dongguan Lu Zhou Shoes, which was named in a February 2020 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) as a suspected beneficiary of forced Uyghur labor, have uncovered no evidence of such practices.

While Uyghurs comprise a portion of Lu Zhou’s workforce, Skechers said, they are employed on the “same terms and conditions as all other factory employees and in particular with respect to working conditions, pay, promotions, etc.” and are free to leave if they no longer wanted to work there.

“Representations made by Lu Zhou were wholly consistent with both its social responsibility commitment and statement and the results of Skechers’ own audits conducted over the course of the three years prior to learning of the allegations,” Skechers said. The retailer said it conducted two additional audits of Lu Zhou since the report was published, including an unannounced visit in June 2020, “specifically directed at investigating the ASPI allegations,” and another audit last November.

“Neither of these audits revealed any indications of the use of forced labor, either of Uyghurs or any other ethnic or religious group, nor did the audits raise any other concerns about general labor conditions,” Skechers said. “Based on these facts, Skechers has no reason to believe that Lu Zhou is using any forced labor; nonetheless, Skechers will continue to closely monitor and audit Lu Zhou and all factories and suppliers globally.”

Skechers, it added, is “deeply concerned” by reports of forced labor and other human-rights abuses of Uyghurs. “We fully support the proposal by industry trade associations to find a solution through state-to-state engagements and collaborative partnerships across governments, industries, labor associations and non-governmental organizations,” the company added.

Inditex, which also owns the Bershka and Pull&Bear brands, said the allegations against it are “completely unfounded.”

“Inditex fully complies with all existing legislation and recommendations regarding the protection of workers’ rights and has implemented a human rights compliance framework based on the highest international standards,” the spokesperson told Sourcing Journal.

Uniqlo, whose parent is Fast Retailing, said that the Japanese retailer is committed to protecting the human rights of the workers in its supply chains and that it will “continue to focus on providing products that customers around the world can purchase with a sense of trust.”

“As we have confirmed in the past, none of our production partners are located in the Xinjiang region, and no fabric or spinning mill used in the manufacture of Uniqlo products is located in the area,” a representative said. “All Uniqlo items use only cotton that originates from sustainable sources. By definition, sustainable cotton requires that human rights are safeguarded in processing. If we ever find evidence of forced labor or any other serious human rights abuse at any of our suppliers, we will cease to do business with that supplier.”

SMCP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This isn’t the first time French prosecutors have handled complaints of this nature. In February, the Association of Uighurs in France filed a lawsuit against Nike for “deceptive business practices and complicity in the concealment of forced labor” of Uyghurs through its subcontracting.

Nike denied all charges, telling Euronews that the sportswear giant is “committed to ethical and responsible manufacturing and we uphold international labor standards.”

Taekwang Group, one of the factories implicated in the ASPI report, stopped employing workers from Xinjiang at its Qingdao facility, the Just Do It Company said. An independent third-party audit “confirmed there are no longer any employees from XUAR” there. “Our ongoing diligence has not found evidence of employment of Uyghurs, or other ethnic minorities from the XUAR, elsewhere in our supply chain in China,” Nike added.

Other brands are also wrestling with their position on Xinjiang. In a statement released Wednesday, Muji brand owner Ryohin Keikaku, sought to alleviate concerns about cotton from the region, which is responsible for roughly 80 percent of China’s cotton.

“With regard to the approximately 5,000 hectares of farms and other facilities in the Xinjiang region, we assess the information about the cotton fields, the profiles of the workers and the personnel plans of the farms, and we dispatch an external, independent, third-party organization to conduct on-site audits in line with the cotton cultivation schedule,” the company said.

Ryohnin Keikaku said the firm is taking “all necessary steps” to respect human rights and that on-site audits have not identified any violations of labor standards.

“From the cotton that is the raw material of our products to the final product, Muji is firmly managing the process as described above,” it added. “…We will continue our business activities that aim at achieving ‘a simple pleasant life and society.’”