A “substantial volume” of apparel tainted by Uyghur forced labor from China is “flooding” into the European Union, a new study says, demonstrating what it characterizes as the “failure” of voluntary corporate social responsibility initiatives and non-binding due diligence measures.
A joint effort by Uyghur Rights Monitor, Sheffield Hallam University’s Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice and the Uyghur Center for Democracy and Human Rights, the report flagged dozens of brands across fast-fashion, mid-market and luxury categories, including Adidas, Bestseller, Burberry, H&M Group, Hugo Boss, Marks & Spencer, Levi Strauss & Co., Next, Nike, Prada, Ralph Lauren, Skechers and Zara owner Inditex, as being at risk of sourcing products made by persecuted Muslim minorities in state-imposed labor transfer programs.
Researchers employed publicly available information, including shipping data, corporate and media reports, state documents and maps to connect the fashion purveyors, either directly or by way of intermediaries, to four major Chinese textile and apparel manufacturers-namely, Anhui Huamao Group Co., Beijing Guanghua Textile Co., Xinjiang Zhongtai Group and Zhejiang Sunrise Garment Group-that have reported ties to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region through sourcing, subsidiaries and manufacturing.
Anhui Huamao Group Co., for instance, advertises its relationship with Burberry and Prada, while Beijing Guanghua Textile Co.’s TopNew was still listed on H&M’s supplier list as of its November update. Shipping records, the report said, appear to confirm a relationship between Beijing Guanghua Textile Co. and Skechers in Vietnam, while air-freight bills of lading, which are usually not included in shipping records made publicly available, suggest that it supplies to Inditex. Customs records also seem to indicate that Anhui Huamao Group Co. is a major supplier to suppliers such as Vietnam’s Gain Lucky, India’s Gemini Enterprises and Shahi Exports and Sri Lanka’s Penguin Sportswear, which in turn provide goods to the likes of Adidas, Hugo Boss, Marks & Spencer, Inditex and Nike.
The report said that many of the brands named “celebrate their high ESG rankings and certification programs” as a “way of proving that they are responsible, even while engaging in labor transfers. It said that while private certifications and accreditations, like Better Cotton and the International Labour Organization and International Finance Corporations’s Better Work, are “routinely cited” as evidence of fair labor conditions, the standards can vary wildly, with most of the qualifications “largely predicated on social compliance norms that predate modern forced labor” and “typically…not account[ing] for state-imposed forced labor.”
A spokesperson for Better Cotton, which suspended all licensing and assurance activities in Xinjiang in 2020, said that state-imposed forced labor is incorporated as a criterion in the sustainability standard’s “enabling environment” assessment of new country startups and in the annually updated decent work risk assessment tool for all countries where Better Cotton is produced.
“Any brand in compliance with international due diligence obligations should have long since severed ties with any supplier that sources from the Uyghur region,” said Rushan Abbas, founder and executive director of Campaign for Uyghurs. “Any brand buying from these suppliers that claims its products are free from Uyghur forced labor should demonstrate how exactly they know that. It breaks my heart to think that my innocent sister, a retired medical doctor, may be forced to make clothing for those companies.”
Of the companies that responded to queries from Sourcing Journal, Adidas rejected the claims as inaccurate, adding that while Gain Lucky is an indirect material supplier, the cotton for the yarn processed there for the sportswear maker is cotton imported from Brazil and the United States. Inditex said that it isn’t currently engaged in any relationship with the companies mentioned in the report, nor does it plan on entering into dealings with them in the future. Hugo Boss, Levi’s, Marks & Spencer and Skechers likewise denied any links with the manufacturers mentioned. A spokesperson for H&M would only say that transparency about its supply chain is “very important…and [it has] come far in that work.”
Shahi Exports, India’s largest apparel manufacturer, said that it doesn’t source from Anhui Huamao Group Co. or its subsidiaries and that “no transactions with this high-risk vendor have occurred.” A representative said that despite its request for evidence from the researchers, none has been received.
In an email sent to researchers, a representative for Sunrise Group, formerly Zhejiang Sunrise Garment Group and Smart Shirts, called the report’s findings “false and defamatory,” resulting in potential harm that could “literally run into hundreds of millions of $s.” Both companies have invested in traceability and transparency, the person said, suggesting that “legal remedies” could be necessary if the report doesn’t retract its statements.
A number of the companies have faced similar claims before. In 2021, the French antiterrorism prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into Inditex and Skechers, along with SMCP and Uniqlo, following the filing of a complaint by a Uyghur woman and the human-rights groups Sherpa, the Collectif Ethique sur l’étiquette and the Uyghur Institute of Europe that they were profiting from “crimes against humanity” by using forced Uyghur labor. It later closed the case, citing a lack of jurisdiction.
More recently, the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, Ottawa’s corporate ethics watchdog, launched probes into the Canadian arms of Hugo Boss, Levi’s, Nike, Ralph Lauren and Zara, among others, into whether their supply chains use or benefit from Uyghur forced labor. Among the supporting documents used was a 2021 study from the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice, which also informed the most recent report, though all brands have denied any nexus to Xinjiang.
Late last month, Anti-Slavery International, the Clean Clothes Campaign, Fashion Revolution, IndustriALL Global Union, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights and other human rights groups wrote to the Council of the European Union urging it to “speed up negotiations” on a proposed European Union forced labor regulation, which appears to have stalled following a lack of agreement on a common position.
“It is now of utmost importance that, during the Spanish presidency…the Council agrees on a general approach,” the letter said. The organizations also made several recommendations, including lowering the proof required to initiate an investigation, shifting the burden of proof in geographies and sectors where there is a high risk of state-imposed forced labor, providing a “one-stop shop” complaints mechanism and offering remediation for forced labor victims.
The report recommends that brands conduct forensic due diligence on any products made of cotton, rayon/viscose, or PVC, including synthetic leather, to identify exposure to companies operating in Xinjiang. And as supply chains become “increasingly opaque,” it said, it is essential that due diligence procedures “strengthen and evolve.”
But only legislation, it noted, can result in the “sea change” needed, as in the case of the United States, which has shown a “significant” reduction in goods from Xinjiang into the country since the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act’s implementation in June 2022. As of October, Customs and Border Protection has detained more than 1,000 apparel shipments, valued at $44 million, under the law. Of these, 577 shipments worth some $13 million were ultimately denied entry. Now, it said, it’s time for an equally robust approach, not just from the European Union but everywhere in the globe.
“This research highlights the need for strong legislative responses across the globe, from Canada to South Korea,” said Chloe Cranston, head of thematic advocacy programs at Anti-Slavery International. “Governments must introduce and enforce robust measures to control the import of products made with forced labor. This includes in the EU, where the proposed forced labor regulation must be meaningfully designed to prevent EU member states [from] becoming dumping grounds for Uyghur forced labor goods.”