French prosecutors have opened an investigation into four multinational fashion companies suspected of covering up and profiting from crimes against humanity in China’s Xinjiang region by sourcing products made using forced Uyghur labor.
Legal sources confirmed to French media on Friday that the investigation concerned Uniqlo France, owned by Fast Retailing; Inditex, which owns Zara and Bershka; SMCP, owner of the French fashion brands Sandro and Maje; and the shoe company Skechers.
Revealed by the investigation site Mediapart, the investigation follows a complaint filed in early April by activists including the anti-corruption group Sherpa, the Uyghur Institute of Europe and a Uyghur interned in Xinjiang.
The joint complaint was based primarily on a report on the use of forced Uyghur labor in the garment industry by the Australian NGO ASPI. “Multinationals must not profit with impunity from the forced labor of the Uyghurs”, Sherpa tweeted.
China’s treatment of the predominantly Muslim Turkic minority in Xinjiang, who makes up just under half of the western region’s 25 million people, has become a major source of diplomatic conflict between Beijing and the West.
United Nations experts and rights groups estimate that more than a million people, mostly Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, have been detained in recent years in a vast camp system in Xinjiang. China denies all allegations of abuse in the region.
Former detainees have said they have been subjected to ideological training and abuse, and rights groups say the camps – which China initially denied existed, before saying it These were “vocational training centers” aimed at combating extremism – were used as a source of manpower.
Amnesty International this month published more than 50 accounts of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities who said they were interned and tortured in Xinjiang, which it said had become a “dystopian hell” for hundreds of thousands of Muslims.
Several international clothing brands, including Burberry, Uniqlo, H&M, Nike and Adidas pledged to boycott cotton from Xinjiang last year and have since been hit by calls to boycott their products in China.
Inditex said it rejects the allegations but will cooperate fully with the French investigation. “We have zero tolerance for all forms of forced labor and have established policies and procedures to ensure that this practice does not take place in our supply chain,” he said.
SMCP also said it would cooperate with the French authorities but would prove the allegations to be false, claiming that it “works with suppliers located all over the world and… has no direct suppliers in the region mentioned in the press. “.
Tokyo-based Fast Retailing said it had not yet been contacted by French authorities but would cooperate fully “to reaffirm that there is no forced labor in our supply chains” , while Skechers told Reuters it is not commenting on pending litigation.
The US, EU, Britain and Canada collectively imposed sanctions on senior Chinese officials in March over human rights abuses and the mass internment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, Beijing retaliating immediately by tit for tat action.