France investigates fashion brands over forced Uyghur labour claims

French prosecutors have opened an investigation into four multinational fashion retailers on suspicion of concealing and profiting from crimes against humanity in China’s Xinjiang region by sourcing goods produced using forced Uyghur labour.

Judicial sources confirmed to French media on Friday the investigation concerned Uniqlo France, owned by Fast Retailing; Inditex, which owns Zara and Bershka; SMCP, the owner of the French fashion labels Sandro and Maje; and the footwear company Skechers.

Revealed by the investigative website Mediapart, the investigation follows a complaint filed in early April by campaigners including the anti-corruption group Sherpa, the Uyghur Institute of Europe and a Uyghur who was interned in Xinjiang.

The joint complaint was based mainly on a report on the use of forced Uyghur labour in the clothing industry by the Australian NGO ASPI. “Multinationals must not profit, with impunity, from the forced labour of Uyghurs,” tweeted Sherpa.

China’s treatment of Xinjiang’s mainly Muslim, Turkic-speaking minority, who make up just under half of the western region’s 25 million inhabitants, 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, mainly Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, have been detained in recent years in a vast system of camps in Xinjiang. China denies all allegations of abuse in the region.

Former inmates have said they were subject to ideological training and abuse and rights groups say the camps – whose existence China initially denied, before saying they were “vocational training centres” aimed at combating extremism – have been used as a source of low-paid forced labour.

Amnesty International this month published more than 50 accounts from Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities who said they had been interned and tortured in Xinjiang, which it said had become a “dystopian hellscape” for hundreds of thousands of Muslims.

Several international clothing brands including Burberry, Uniqlo, H&M, Nike and Adidas pledged last year to boycott cotton from Xinjiang, and have since been hit by calls for a boycott of their products in China.

Inditex said it rejected the claims but would cooperate fully with the French investigation. “We have zero tolerance for all forms of forced labour and have established policies and procedures to ensure this practice does not take place in our supply chain,” it said.

SMCP also said it would cooperate with French authorities but would prove the allegations false, saying it “works with suppliers located all over the world and … does not have direct suppliers in the region mentioned in the press”.

The Tokyo-based Fast Retailing said it had not yet been been contacted by French authorities but would cooperate fully “to reaffirm there is no forced labour in our supply chains”, while Skechers told Reuters it did not comment on pending litigation.

The US, EU, Britain and Canada in March collectively imposed sanctions on senior Chinese officials over human rights abuses and the mass internment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, with Beijing immediately retaliating with tit-for-tat measures.

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