Owner of Uniqlo and Zara accused of profiting from forced labour of Uyghur minorities
This article was updated at 13:10 on Sunday 21st May 2023 to distinguish that Uniqlo is owned by Japanese company Fast Retailing, and that the current court case has been filed in France.
Inditex, the owner of clothing giant Zara, and Japanese-owned Uniqlo are among clothing brands with a complaint filed against them in a court in France. Rights groups announced that the complaint includes allegations of crimes against humanity, aggravated reduction to servitude, genocide, and human trafficking. Inditex is accused of allegedly profiting from forced labour of the Uyghur minority in China.
The complaint was filed by anticorruption association Sherpa and the Ethique sur l’etiquette (Ethics on Labels) collective. They were joined by the European Uyghur Institute and a Uyghur woman who had been held in a camp in China’s far west region of Xinjiang. An investigating judge is expected to be appointed in response to the filing.
The complainants say they want to bring to light:
the possible responsibilities of clothing multinationals who profit from the forced labour of Uyghurs for the production of their products.
A previous case filed to the national anti-terror prosecutor’s office in Paris was dropped. It was decided that it lacked “jurisdiction to prosecute the facts contained in the complaint.” That case was also looking into alleged crimes against humanity. In that instance a number of clothing brands including Uniqlo France were accused of marketing products that were made at least part in factories where Uyghur people were subjected to forced labour. Other major brands, such as Nike have faced similar accusations.
Inditex said the latest accusations were “unfounded”. A spokesperson said:
The company has rigorous traceability controls to ensure the provenance of its products and a zero-tolerance policy towards any kind of forced labor.
Rights groups say more than one million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been held in what the Chinese government calls “re-education camps” in Xinjiang. They have also described the facilities as vocational centres designed to curb extremism.
A 2020 report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that:
The Chinese government has facilitated the mass transfer of Uyghur and other ethnic minority citizens from the far west region of Xinjiang to factories across the country. Under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour, Uyghurs are working in factories that are in the supply chains of at least 82 well-known global brands in the technology, clothing and automotive sectors, including Apple, BMW, Gap, Huawei, Nike, Samsung, Sony and Volkswagen.
The report concluded that:
Foreign governments, businesses and civil society groups should identify opportunities to increase pressure on the Chinese government to end the use of Uyghur forced labour and extrajudicial detentions.
A report from Human Rights Watch found that crimes against humanity perpetrated against Uyghur Muslims included:
imprisonment or other deprivation of liberty in violation of international law; persecution of an identifiable ethnic or religious group; enforced disappearance; torture; murder; and alleged inhumane acts intentionally causing great suffering or serious injury to mental or physical health, notably forced labor and sexual violence.
As the current case unfolds, the plaintiffs’ lawyer William Bourdon hopes the French justice system will recognise their claim:
on the basis of concealing crimes against humanity.
Textile companies must account for having knowingly enriched themselves, at the cost of the most serious international crimes.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse
Featured image by Rio Lecatompessy/Unsplash
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