Prosecutors in France are looking into whether household names such as Zara, Uniqlo, and Skechers profited from the exploitation of Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region.
France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office has launched an investigation into four major fashion retailers on suspicion of profiting from and concealing “crimes against humanity” committed by employing Uyghur forced labor in China.
French prosecutors launched an investigation last month into allegations that the four companies — Inditex, which owns Zara; Uniqlo; Skechers; and SMCP, which owns brands such as Sandro and Maje — profited from human rights violations in China’s Xinjiang region, a French judicial official confirmed on Friday.
The investigation follows a lawsuit filed in April against the same four companies by human rights organizations and a Uyghur woman who claimed she was imprisoned in Xinjiang.
The case raises issues for global fashion retailers that source clothing from all over the world. Approximately one in every five cotton garments sold globally is made with cotton or yarn from Xinjiang, and many household names in the fashion industry are facing increased scrutiny for possible ties to the region — as well as for other forced labor abuses in their supply chains.
China has consistently denied all allegations of human rights abuses in the region.
Inditex and Uniqlo both categorically denied the allegations contained in the complaint. Skechers stated that it would refrain from commenting on pending litigation. SMCP did not provide a comment in response to a request for comment.
According to William Bourdon, the lawyer representing the human rights organizations, the investigation would be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to hold fashion companies accountable for their profits.
“This investigation demonstrates that companies can be held accountable for enriching themselves through human rights violations and then importing their product into countries like France,” Mr. Bourdon said. Among the plaintiffs are Sherpa, the collective Éthique sur l’Étiquette, and the European Uyghur Institute.
Mr. Bourdon stated that the groups’ lawsuit is largely based on findings published in a March 2020 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, among other documents. Apart from highlighting human rights violations in Xinjiang, the report identified 83 foreign and Chinese companies, including fashion brands, that benefited directly or indirectly from the use of Uyghur workers outside of Xinjiang via potentially abusive labor transfer programs.
“We hope to see more cases like this one in other countries as consumers gain a better understanding of exploitation and human suffering in fashion supply chains,” Mr. Bourdon said, “and warn brands that failing to clean up their acts could result in legal and reputational disaster.”
Numerous international clothing brands, including Burberry, Uniqlo, H&M, Nike, and Adidas, pledged last year to boycott cotton from Xinjiang, but have since faced boycott calls from Chinese consumers who interpreted the cotton renunciations as an attack on China.
Inditex and Uniqlo both reiterated their commitment to human rights in response to the investigation.
“At Inditex, we have a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of forced labor and have implemented policies and procedures to ensure that this practice does not occur in our supply chain,” the company said in a statement on Friday. “Inditex maintains stringent traceability controls, and we intend to work closely with the French authorities to substantiate the allegations.”
Uniqlo stated in a statement that it is “committed to protecting the human rights of people working in our supply chains” and that none of its manufacturing, fabric, or spinning mill partners are based in Xinjiang.
“While we have not been notified by authorities, we will cooperate fully with the investigation to reaffirm that there is no forced labor in our supply chains,” the company stated.
Uniqlo lost an appeal with US Customs in May following the seizure of a shipment of men’s shorts for suspected violations of a Xinjiang cotton ban.
In recent years, Chinese authorities have attempted to mold up to one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other predominantly Muslim minorities into model workers obedient to the Communist Party through coercive labor programs and mass internment camps. Inmates are compelled to attend job training, and some are then assigned to low-wage factory jobs.
President Donald J. Trump added increasingly restrictive measures against Xinjiang in his final months in office, including sanctions against dozens of companies doing business there and a ban on cotton imports from the region, citing widespread use of forced labor. Campaigners, including Raphael Glucksmann, a European Parliament member who has created social media campaigns and recruited celebrities to build support for the Uyghurs in the West, have worked to raise awareness of the situation.
“While this is only the beginning of a lengthy process, it demonstrates to multinational corporations that the page of impunity is turning,” Mr. Glucksmann said following the investigation’s announcement this week. “I’m hoping that by threatening this legal action, the big brands will take us even more seriously, seeing forced labor as a potential financial and criminal blow as well. ” In France, judicial investigations can take months, if not years, and involve numerous twists and turns that do not always result in a trial. Mr. Bourdon stated that it is unknown what penalties may be imposed on the brands if they are tried and found guilty. “Whether it is compensation, fines, or something else, the judge has the final say,” he stated. .