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French City Rejects Zara Expansion Over Forced Labor Concerns

A city in France has voted against the expansion of a Zara store due to an investigation into the retailer’s alleged use of forced labor from China’s controversy-ridden Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The Inditex-owned fashion retailer, the world’s largest by revenue, said it will be appealing the decision by the town hall of Bordeaux, where it had planned to double the size of its store in the city center.

“The company expresses its surprise at the apparent motivation behind this decision made public, which is not founded on any judicial ruling,” a spokesperson for the Spanish brand told Reuters Tuesday. “Zara firmly insists on the lack of any basis and rigor to the accusations included in the complaint mentioned by the commission.”

Commission members who rejected the expansion cited an ongoing inquiry by French prosecutors into whether Inditex, Sandro and Maje owner SMCP, Skechers and Uniqlo have been profiting from the exploitation of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim minorities by subcontracting with suppliers in Xinjiang or marketing goods derived from its cotton.

“It was a political decision by us,” Alain Garnier, one of the elected officials on the 10-member commission, three of whom voted no and six of whom abstained, told AFP Monday. “We wanted to send a strong signal by blocking the expansion of stores that don’t have sufficient control over their suppliers.”

The crimes against humanity unit of France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office opened the inquiry in June following the filing of a complaint by a Uyghur woman and the human-rights groups Sherpa, the Collectif Ethique sur l’étiquette, and the Uyghur Institute of Europe. Together with Members of European Parliament Raphaël Glucksmann and Reinhart Butickhofer, along with the World Uyghur Congress, they accused the brands of “knowingly taking advantage in their value chain of the workforce in a region where crimes against humanity are being perpetrated.”

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Inditex, which announced Tuesday that Marta Ortega, daughter of founder Amancio Ortega, will succeed Pablo Isla as chairperson of the company next April, told Sourcing Journal at the time that it “strongly” refutes the claims in the complaint and that it intends to cooperate with French authorities to “confirm that the allegations are unfounded.”

“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,” a spokesperson said. “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.”

Experts believe that up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and others are being held in detention camps and prisons across Xinjiang, where they might be marshaled into low-skilled manufacturing, such as the production of textiles and apparel, or forced to pick cotton by hand. Other mass labor-transfer schemes 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 report, though the ruling Communist Party has vehemently denied this.

Another cache of previously unseen documents, published online this week, however, reveal calls by top leader Xi Jinping to relocate Uyghurs in order to repair what he saw as an imbalance between the smaller Han Chinese and larger ethnic populations in Xinjiang. He also appeared to suggest that unemployed persons are liable to “provoke trouble,” resulting in the “vigorous” development of labor-intensive industries designed to prevent Uyghurs from “having nothing to do” and therefore being “easily exploited by evildoers.”

“The stated reasons for Xinjiang’s labor transfers are therefore more political than economic,” wrote China studies researcher Adrian Zenz in a report about the documents. “While the promotion of employment through labor transfers into labor-intensive industries was not expected to make a greater contribution to the economy or government revenue than other industries, it was considered a ‘matter of vital importance’ to ‘Xinjiang’s long-term peace and stability.’”

The material also draws links between statements made by high-ranking officials and other hallmarks of Beijing’s crackdown, including mass internment, family separations, the criminalization of religious practices and forced birth-control measures, Zenz said, noting that the files “show the motivation behind these unprecedented measures.” In one speech, for example, Xi argues that the massive Belt and Road infrastructure project requires a “stable domestic security environment.”

“He asserts that the entire country’s national security and the achievement of China’s major goals in the 21st century are in jeopardy if the situation in southern Xinjiang cannot be brought under control,” Zenz said. “Xi demands that the region engages in an all-out battle to ‘prevent Xinjiang’s violent terrorist activities from spreading to the rest of China.’ He notes that since violent acts have already spread to other regions of China, ‘[t]herefore we propose that Xinjiang is currently in…a painful period of interventionary treatment.’”