Several high-profile textile brands and retailers, including Hugo Boss and Lidl, have been accused of directly or indirectly abetting and profiting from the forced labour of Uighurs in western China.
The allegations appear in a 96-page criminal claim filed by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) in Germany earlier this month. Hugo Boss and Lidl deny the charges.
The Chinese government is forcing Uighurs in the autonomous Xinjiang region, where nearly 20% of the world’s cotton is produced, to harvest cotton and produce garments for some of the world’s best-known brands, according to numerous NGO and media reports.
International law experts have classed the treatment of the Muslim minority population in the region as amounting to crimes against humanity while various legislative proposals are being discussed by western governments aimed at holding companies accountable for human rights abuses.
Pushing back on western intervention, Beijing continues to deny the allegations. China has applied sanctions against individuals and organisations that repeat the claims and called for boycotts of international brands – such as H&M, Burberry, and Nike – that have raised concerns about the treatment of Uighurs.
However, according to the ECCHR, several European clothing brands and retailers continue to source goods from Xinjiang, as demonstrated in published supplier lists.
The Berlin-based non-profit organisation alleges that European companies may be contributing to or are complicit in a business model based on forced labour – a risk they should have been aware of – and are therefore profiting from human rights violations.
The ECCHR is asking public prosecutors in Germany’s Supreme Court to investigate the European retailers and their management for crimes under international law.
“The complaint highlights the potential systematic involvement of European companies in alleged state-sponsored forced labour in the [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region],” said Miriam Saage-Maaß, head of ECCHR’s business and human rights programme.
“It is unacceptable that European governments criticise China on human rights violations, while European companies may be profiting from the exploitation of the Uighur population. It is high time that those responsible in the companies are held accountable if suspicions of forced labour are confirmed.”
We do not tolerate forced or compulsory labour or any form of modern slavery – Hugo Boss statement
In response to the complaint, Hugo Boss has emphasised that the company does not tolerate any forced or compulsory labour or forms of modern slavery and obliges all partners along the supply chain to ensure compliance with human rights and not to tolerate any violations.
“We believe that our values and standards have been adhered to in the manufacture of our goods and that there have been no violations of the law. We, therefore, reject ECCHR’s claims to the contrary,” a spokesperson told IEL. “We have of course taken the public reports of human rights violations in the region very seriously and initiated measures accordingly.”
The fashion brand added that safeguarding human rights in the global supply chain is “a top priority” for the company: “Accordingly, we do not tolerate forced or compulsory labour or any form of modern slavery. This is part of our global standards. Wherever we stand up for our standards and values, we do so in the conviction that our products are manufactured according to what we have defined and specified as binding criteria for our business activities.
“Ultimately, the same values and standards apply to all our suppliers worldwide. Many months ago, we already requested our direct suppliers to inform us and confirm that the production of our goods in our supply chain is carried out in accordance with our values and standards and, in particular, that human rights and fair working conditions are observed along the supply chain.”
A spokesperson for Lidl said the retailer takes its responsibility for respecting the fundamental rights of all workers throughout its supply chains “extremely seriously”.
“We are committed to corporate due diligence, improving working conditions and strengthening human rights within the framework of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” they said.
“We take a zero-tolerance position with regards to forced and child labour and it is part of our written code of conduct. This is communicated to all suppliers to comply with and they are required to implement social and ecological standards. If we have evidence regarding violations of these provisions, we will investigate and take any appropriate steps, including bans of production sites.”
As part of its corporate due diligence, Lidl said it “continuously and systematically” reviews potential risks, such as human rights violations, in the supply chains of its own-brand products and takes action as necessary. All production sites of Lidl non-food own brands are regularly checked by independent and local experts according to the recognised BSCI or SA 8000 standard.
Lidl said several of the producers highlighted in the ECCHR’s complaint no longer work for the retailer and it does not plan to award any more contracts to those suppliers.
In April 2021, NGOs Sherpa, the Collectif Ethique sur l’étiquette, the Uyghur Institute of Europe, and a Uighur victim filed a joint complaint in France alleging that French textile brands and retailers are profiting from forced labour in China.
Brands including Uniqlo, Zara, Bershka, Pull and Bear, and Massimo Dutti, which were named in the complaint, have denied the allegations. French authorities have reportedly begun investigations.