France Investigates Fashion Firms for ‘Crimes Against Humanity’ over Xinjiang Slave Labour

People walk past a Uniqlo clothing store in Beijing on March 25, 2021. (Photo by GREG BAKER / AFP) (Photo by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)
GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office has opened up an investigation into four fashion companies for being complicit in “crimes against humanity” for the alleged use of slave labour in the Xinjiang region of China.

The National Anti-Terrorism Prosecutor’s Office (PNAT) has accused Uniqlo France, owned by the Japanese group Fast Retailing, Inditex, the owner of Zara, the textile firm SMCP, and the shoemaker Skechers of profiting from Uyghur slave labour in Xinjiang.

The investigation was launched following complaints from the anti-corruption association Sherpa, the Ethics on Etiquette collective, the Uyghur Institute of Europe, and a Uyghur who was interned in Xinjiang province, Sud Ouest reported.

The lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the case, William Bourdon said: “This is just the start, this investigation will necessarily create a legal risk and additional accountability for all those who, with complete impunity, thought they could import into France, in order to enrich themselves, resources and products at the cost of tears and blood.”

The companies face charges of “concealment of the crime of genocide and crimes against humanity”. The complaint was based on a 2020 report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank, which alleged that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has forcibly transferred over 80,000 Uyghurs to factories throughout China to work in slave-like conditions to produce products for foreign brands.

“In factories far away from home, they typically live in segregated dormitories, undergo organised Mandarin and ideological training outside working hours, are subject to constant surveillance, and are forbidden from participating in religious observances. Numerous sources, including government documents, show that transferred workers are assigned minders and have limited freedom of movement,” the report claimed.

The fashion industry has long been implicated in what has been characterised by the United States State Department and the British and the Canadian parliaments as a genocidal regime in Xinjiang. The western province of China represents an estimated 84 per cent of the communist nation’s cotton production and as much as a fifth of global production.

Uniqlo has even advertised that their products are made from “Xinjiang cotton,” claiming that somehow it is of superior quality.

A letter from the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region in October of last year said that “Almost every major apparel brand and retailer selling cotton products is potentially implicated,” in the Xinjiang slave labour system.

“Right now, there is near certainty that any brand sourcing apparel, textiles, yarn or cotton from the Uyghur Region is profiting from human rights violations, including forced labour, both in the Uyghur Region and more broadly throughout China,” the group added.

The Xinjiang region has seen the Chinese Communist Party intern up to three million people in concentration camps at its peak, with recent estimates from the U.S. government putting the figure at around two million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz people, among others in the camps.

Amid an international outcry, the Communist Party has attempted to rebrand the forced labour camps as merely a “facilitation of employment”.

In statements given to the BBC, Uniqlo, Inditex, and SCMP all claimed that they regularly conduct audits of their supply chains to ensure that no slave labour has been used in the production of their products. Sketchers did not reply to requests for comment from the British broadcaster.

However, it is unclear how thorough any audit of supply chains can be in the tightly controlled communist nation.

The China director for Human Rights Watch, Sophie Richardson, said that “political repression in the Xinjiang region is so pervasive that labour inspectors cannot interview workers freely without fear of reprisals.”

Richardson added that auditors are required to give advance warning to factories before inspecting them and they cannot force local Chinese authorities to reveal the hours worked and wages the people in the workshops receive.

The director of the United Kingdom’s World Uyghur Congress, Rahima Mahmut, backed up this assertion, saying that it is “impossible” for companies to carry out audits “independently in the region because of the regime”.

“We need more collaboration across countries and welcome this move by France but want the whole of Europe to carry out such investigations.”

Follow Kurt Zindulka on Twitter here @KurtZindulka

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