Several leading fashion brands are being scrutinized by French prosecutors over allegations that they are profiting from “crimes against humanity” in China’s northwest Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where reports of the exploitation of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim minorities have emerged with increasing frequency over the past few years.
A source told Reuters Friday that the crimes against humanity unit of France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office opened an investigation against Zara owner Inditex, Sandro and Maje owner SMCP, Skechers and Uniqlo 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.
In April, the groups accused the companies of subcontracting with suppliers in Xinjiang or marketing goods derived from its cotton, “thus knowingly taking advantage in their value chain of the workforce in a region where crimes against humanity are being perpetrated.”
Beijing has repeatedly lashed out at allegations of human-rights abuses, which many have labeled genocide, by deriding them as attempts by Western powers to harm its interests and punishing brands and organizations for what it perceives as slights. Xinjiang cotton makes up 85 percent of China’s cotton, which in turn accounts for one-fifth of the world’s supply of the fiber.
At a press conference on Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that the “so-called ‘forced labor’ in Xinjiang is a lie concocted by a small number of anti-China elements from the U.S. and a few other countries, with the aim of disrupting Xinjiang and containing China.”
“We firmly oppose any external forces interfering in China’s internal affairs through Xinjiang-related issues,” he added.
Inditex, which also owns the Bershka and Pull&Bear brands, said 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 for the Spanish giant, which says it conducts “rigorous” traceability controls, told Sourcing Journal. “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.”
France’s SMCP, too, clapped back at the accusations, noting that it will cooperate with investigators to prove them false.
“SMCP works with suppliers located all over the world and maintains that it does not have direct suppliers in the region mentioned in the press, and notes that most of its supply chain is in the Euro-Mediterranean region,” a spokesperson for the company told Sourcing Journal, adding that its supply chain is “entirely independent” from the one belonging to majority shareholder Shandong Ruyi, which is based in China.
“The SMCP Group, a signatory of the United Nations Global Compact, and as a responsible company, has formalized its requirements vis-à-vis its suppliers, in particular in the field of human rights, through its general purchasing conditions and its code of conduct for suppliers which are accessible on its website,” the spokesperson added. “By signing these documents, SMCP’s suppliers agree to adhere to all clauses and ensure that their subcontractors comply with these obligations. SMCP regularly conducts audits through an expert and independent third party to ensure this process is fully respected.”
Uniqlo parent Fast Retailing said that while it is aware of the investigation, it has not been contacted by French prosecutors. “If and when notified, we will cooperate fully with the investigation to reaffirm there is no forced labor in our supply chains,” the company said.
“Uniqlo has a zero-tolerance policy toward any human rights violation and we are committed to protecting the human rights of the people in our supply chains, regardless of country or region of manufacture,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “Our focus is to provide products that customers around the world can purchase with a sense of trust.”
The company has said in the past that none of its production partners are situated in Xinjiang.
“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,” the spokesperson added. “All Uniqlo items use only cotton that originates from sustainable sources. By definition, sustainable cotton requires that human rights are safeguarded in processing.”
The retailer hit headlines in May after losing an appeal with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) over the detention of a shipment of men’s shirts, which the agency suspected of violating its ban on cotton produced by the paramilitary Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, its subordinates and affiliates.
Fast Retailing said at the time that it was disappointed by CBP’s decision. “As a global company, we are committed to protecting the human rights of everyone in our supply chain,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “Uniqlo has strong mechanisms in place to identify any potential violations of human and worker rights.”
Skechers said that the brand doesn’t comment on pending litigation. In a statement published in March, the California footwear maker 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 as a suspected beneficiary of forced Uyghur labor, have revealed no sign 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.
The campaign against the brands is being backed by Raphael Glucksmann, a European Member of Parliament who tweeted Thursday that the opening of the probe was “historical” and “enormous.”
“Multinationals have long been above the law,” he wrote in French. “We will show them that the law applies to everyone, even the most powerful and the wealthy. This investigation is a key moment in a larger fight.”
The news comes as the State Department called out China for its state-sponsored use of arbitrarily detained Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities as forced laborers to produce Chinese-made goods.
“Many detainees are subject to physical violence, sexual abuse and torture to induce them to work, producing apparel, electronics, solar equipment [and] agricultural products,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the launch of the department’s annual human trafficking report on Thursday. “And while the practices are the most egregious in Xinjiang, this year’s report notes that China has subjected its citizens to coercive labor practices in other parts of the country as well.”