May 17, 2023
After a lawsuit filed in France in April 2021 against Uniqlo, SMCP, Inditex and Skechers USA resulted in no further action taken, various NGOs have now filed a new complaint aimed at triggering a formal investigation into the links between the apparel industry at large, and not just the four groups initially targeted, and the exploitation of the Uighur ethnic minority within the Chinese textile sector.
The new lawsuit has been filed by two French NGOs, Sherpa and the Ethique sur l’Étiquette collective, as well as by the European Uighur Institute and a Uighur plaintiff. The alleged offence relates to the concealment of four crimes: crimes against humanity, genocide, aggravated slavery and human trafficking by organised gangs.
“The [NGOs] are calling for a judicial investigation to be opened, so that an investigating judge [the French equivalent of a prosecutor] can conduct an inquiry and shed light on the possible responsibility of apparel multinationals that are allegedly using Uighur forced labour to manufacture their products,” said the NGOs in a joint statement.
They also underlined that 20% of the world’s cotton output comes from China’s Xinjiang province, where Uighurs are commonly used for harvesting cotton and transforming cotton fibres into clothes. A practice of forced labour that has been denounced by NGOs and which the Chinese authorities are not hiding, calling it instead a deliberate strategy of using labour to integrate the local Muslim minority.
“By commercialising these products, the apparel industry is benefiting from the serious crimes committed against [the Uighur] population,” said the NGOs. “As repression of the Uighurs continues, and given the world’s weak response against the Chinese regime, the justice system could play a major role in shedding light on the responsibilities of industrial groups that are profiting from and fostering genocidal economics.”
A complaint filed in April 2021 against four apparel brands led to the opening of an investigation by the French justice system, via the national anti-terrorist prosecution office (PNAT) in June the same year. On April 12 2023, PNAT said it was dismissing the investigation without further action, “because PNAT is deemed incompetent to prosecute the facts covered by the complaint.” An about-turn which the NGOs involved said they failed to understand.
“Apparel companies will have to be held accountable”
The original lawsuit argued that Uniqlo France (owned by Japanese group Fast Retailing), Inditex (owner of Zara, Bershka and Massimo Dutti), SMCP (owner of Sandro, Maje, Claudie Pierlot and Fursac) and Skechers are commercialising products manufactured wholly or partly in factories where Uighurs are indentured as slave labour, according to the NGOs.
The plaintiffs also think that these companies aren’t demanding sufficient checks to their subcontractors. Their lawyer, William Bourdon, is hoping that a French tribunal will be “deemed competent” to investigate, the motivation being “concealing crimes against humanity.”
“Apparel companies will have to be held accountable for enriching themselves with full cognizance and as a result of the most serious international crimes, while voicing ethical slogans that are purely a façade,” he added.
At the time of the first lawsuit, all four groups denied making use of forced labour. In addition to these four, other major groups, like Nike, Adidas and Shein, have been accused of similar practices.
The USA and several other countries have spoken about the “genocide” of Xinjiang’s Uighur Muslim minority, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spoke about crimes against humanity. These accusations have been rejected by Beijing, saying that the rehabilitation centres denounced by Westerners are in fact vocational training centres intended to combat religious extremism and ensure social stability.
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