UK forced labour probe reaches out to apparel retailers - Just Style
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UK forced labour probe reaches out to apparel retailers

By Michelle Russell 20 Oct 2020

Major apparel companies including H&M, Marks & Spencer, Adidas, Nike and Gap have been contacted by UK politicians to give evidence at an inquiry exploring the forced labour of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China.

UK forced labour probe reaches out to apparel retailers

Major apparel companies including H&M, Marks & Spencer, Adidas, Nike and Gap have been contacted by UK politicians to give evidence at an inquiry exploring the forced labour of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China.

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee launched a probe last month to look at the extent to which businesses in the UK are linked to the use of forced labour of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. It followed a recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) that mapped nearly 380 of China’s controversial detention centres in Xinjiang province.

The Committee will study the risks that UK-based businesses face when engaging supply chains that originate in China – and what more the government can do to ensure businesses and consumers in the UK do not perpetuate such forced labour.

Ahead of next month’s hearing, written submissions are being sought on the extent to which the products of forced labour in Xinjiang are reaching the supply chains of UK businesses and to examine how aware companies are of the risk that their activities may support forced labour.

Questions cover supply-chain transparency, requesting compliance evidence, and written feedback on how each company maintains visibility and combats modern slavery within their supply chains.

Apparel companies invited to take part include Adidas, Gap, Boohoo, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Nike, Puma, Stella McCartney, The North Face, Victoria’s Secret, and Zara.

The US is forging ahead with moves to tackle the import of apparel and other goods from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), and has earmarked China as a global hotspot for goods made using forced labour

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (H.R. 6210), which cleared a House vote last month, establishes the legal presumption that any products arriving at US ports that were manufactured in the Uyghur Region, or containing inputs from the region, were made using forced labour. Unless the importer can prove there was no forced labour used in its production, the product is considered illegal and is barred from entering the US.

However, the CEO of the American Apparel and Footwear Association has warned a total US import ban on cotton products from the Xinjiang region over forced labour concerns would “wreak unending havoc” on global supply chains.

Brand responses

A spokesperson for Puma says the company started immediate investigations into its supply chain in China once the Uyghur abuses surfaced in the ASPI report, adding the brand is “in no way engaged in forced labour.”

“Contrary to the report, Puma has no business relationship with Haoyuanpeng Clothing, one of the companies accused of engaging in forced labour in connection with Puma product. Moreover, Puma has no direct or indirect business relationship with any manufacturer in Xinjiang, the native region of the Uyghurs in Western China.

“Our suppliers source yarn from Huafu Top Dyed Melange Yarn Co, however only from factories in the province of Zhejiang in Eastern China and Vietnam. To be clear: Puma has no business relationships with manufacturers located in the Xinjiang region and has taken significant measures to ensure that there is no indirect involvement of Xinjiang labour in the manufacturing of our products.

“We have also sought independent advice regarding our findings, and we have reviewed two external assessments of the aforementioned Huafu location in Zhejiang in accordance with the “Social and Labor Convergence Program” or SLCP. Both assessments were verified by independent third parties and contain a detailed analysis of the labour rights situation. No evidence of any form of forced labour was discovered.

“In addition, we commissioned an external assessment on the origin of the cotton used by Huafu Top Dyed Melange Yarn Co, which shows no evidence of Xinjiang cotton being used for yarn sold to Puma suppliers. The Huafu factory in Vietnam works with the renowned “Better Work Program” of the International Labor Organization (ILO), and we are confident that human rights and labour rights are respected.

“Compliance with human rights, labour rights and environmental standards is a top priority at Puma and has been specified in our codes of conduct for over 20 years. To implement our code of conduct, we maintain a team of 20 experts who regularly audit our suppliers around the world and train those suppliers via round tables in the purchasing regions on current sustainability issues.

“Every manufacturer of Puma has to go through a compliance audit for social and environmental standards before starting the business relationship. Only those manufacturers who pass this audit are included in our supplier base. After starting the business relationship, our manufacturers are checked annually for compliance with our standards; so they are re-audited every year.

“If critical deviations from international social and environmental standards are found as part of these regular reviews, the manufacturer is asked to remedy them immediately. If a manufacturer repeatedly fails to comply with these requests, the business relationship may be terminated.

“Our audit programme for our manufacturers has existed since 1999 and was first accredited by the Fair Labor Association in 2007. The last accreditation was completed last year (2019). This means that Puma has kept demonstrating to have strong policies and practices in place to identify and remediate unfair labour practices in its global supply chain. 

“In order to check compliance with human rights at the second level of our supply chain, a few years ago we decided to include our most important manufacturers of materials and components in our audit programme. In addition to 377 audits at our direct contractual partners or Tier 1 suppliers, we have also conducted 39 inspections at the so-called Tier 2 suppliers last year.

“Another building block of our human rights policy is steadily increasing the proportion of materials from certified sources, such as cotton, polyester or leather. For example, last year we obtained 98% of our polyester, 98% of our leather and 82% of our cotton from certified, more sustainable sources like the Better Cotton Initiative or Bluesign. For the year 2020, we have asked all our suppliers to exclusively use Better Cotton Initiative cotton for Puma production.”

Meanwhile, a statement from Victoria’s Secret says: “L Brands has a strict policy against the use of forced labour of any kind and will only work with suppliers that share our commitment to ethical and responsible business practices. We recently required all of our suppliers to re-certify that they have received, read and understand our no forced labour policy, including the prohibition on the use of cotton from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), and any other form of forced labour.

“In 2019, we took immediate action to evaluate our factory database and confirmed that no production of our finished goods occur in the XUAR. Through this certification process we learned that we obtained a de minimis amount of cotton yarn from one supplier who has ties to the XUAR.  Out of an abundance of caution, we ended our relationship with that supplier earlier this year.”

Meanwhile, Adidas addresses a number of points in relation to the inquiry.

  • Adidas has never sourced goods from Xinjiang. Moreover, after the allegations were made in spring 2019, we immediately and explicitly instructed our suppliers not to source any yarn from the Xinjiang region.
  • The companies mentioned in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s report in relation to Adidas are neither direct nor indirect suppliers of the company. Adidas understands that falsely displayed company logos have been removed from websites and buildings.
  • The Adidas workplace standards strictly prohibit all forms of forced and prison labour and are applicable to all companies across our supply chain. The use of forced labour by any of our partners will result in the termination of the partnership.

A spokesperson for H&M told just-style it had received the letter from the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and that the company will attend the hearing to share information about its approach.

None of the other brands contacted returned a request for comment at the time of going to press.