In a significant development, a human rights group has filed a complaint to German prosecutors alleging that several fashion retailers have profited from forced labor camps, a euphemism for modern concentration camps, in China’s Xinjiang region.
Berlin-based European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) has accused Hugo Boss, Lidl, and other retailers of abetting and profiting directly or indirectly from forced labor in Xinjiang’s cotton industry, in a 96-page complaint that was filed by prosecutors in the Karlsruhe federal court.
Despite UN acknowledging the existence and the torture carried out by China in its concentration camps at Xinjiang, Beijing continues to do the ostrich act denying that it mistreats minority Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, or that forced labour is carried out there.
A spokesperson from the Chinese embassy in Berlin was not immediately available to comment.
“It is unacceptable that European governments criticize China for human rights violations, while European companies may be profiting from the exploitation of the Uyghur population,” said Miriam Saage-Maass, head of ECCHR’s Business and Human Rights program. “It is high time that those responsible in the companies are held accountable if suspicions of forced labor are confirmed.”
The complaint aims to open an inquiry that, its authors say, could hold management of the retailers to account and make customers more aware of abuses and thus re-align supply chains.
In a statement Lidl’s spokesperson said, allegations relating to the company were “based on old supplier lists and relate to past orders or periods of time”. The company has a “zero tolerance” policy towards forced labour and child labour, obliging contractors along the supply chain to adhere to social standards.
“If we become aware of concrete facts regarding violations of these provisions, we will investigate and take appropriate steps. In this context, production facilities have been closed,” said Lidl’s spokesperson.
A spokesperson for Hugo Boss said: “We assume that our values and standards have been complied with in the manufacture of our goods and that there are no legal violations. We therefore reject any other assertions made by ECCHR.”
“We do not tolerate any form of forced or compulsory labour or any form of modern slavery,” said Hugo Boss’ spokesperson while adding that it requires contractors to confirm that human rights and fair working conditions are observed along the supply chain.
The United Nations has cited credible reports that 1 million Muslims are being held in modern concentration camps in Xinjiang and are being put to work there. Initially China had denied the existence of the camps, but later said they were vocational centers designed to combat extremism.
In late 2019, China said all people in the camps had “graduated”.
According to a source, earlier this year in July French prosecutors launched an inquiry into four fashion retailers suspected of concealing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, The case involves the Uniqlo France unit of Japan’s Fast Retailing, Skechers, Zara owner Inditex and France’s SMCP.
Earlier this year in January, the United States announced an import ban on all cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang over allegations that they are made with forced labor by Uyghurs.
China controls around 20% of the world’s cotton market with 85% of its cotton being sourced from Xinjiang.