The complaint issued by human rights organisations Sherpa and Collectif Ethique sur l’étiquette, the European Uyghur Institute, and a Uyghur plaintiff last week (16 May) comes after the dismissal of a previous complaint in April 2021, which accused fashion brands Uniqlo, SMCP, Inditex and Skechers of concealing crimes against humanity.

Dr Sheng Lu, associate professor in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware explains that while the private sector has a responsibility to take action to address forced labour in their supply chains, government-to-government solutions are essential and fundamental to addressing the forced labour concern in China’s Xinjiang region.

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He also highlights the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act (UFLPA) implemented in the US, Canada’s Bill S-211 on forced labour, and the one under development in the EU, which will continue to affect companies’ sourcing strategies and set new standards for due diligence.

In response to the April 2021 complaint in France, the National Anti-Terrorism Prosecution Office initiated a preliminary investigation into the alleged concealment of crimes against humanity. However, Sherpa explains that on 12 April 2023, the public prosecutor closed the inquiry, citing a lack of jurisdiction to prosecute such offences.

This shift in position by the prosecutor’s office, occurring two years after the initial decision to investigate on these grounds, has been met with disappointment by the organisations involved.

Sherpa says the new complaint it filed last week is built on the charge of concealment, focusing on four crimes: crimes against humanity, genocide, aggravated bondage, and human trafficking within an organised gang.

The NGOs are now also calling for the launch of a judicial investigation to uncover the extent of multinational garment companies’ involvement in so-called “profiting” from Uyghur forced labour for the manufacture of their products.

A spokersperson from Collectif Ethique sur l’étiquette tells Just Style the rule of impunity for transnational companies cannot persist, as forced labour for hundreds thousands of Uyghurs still happens in the region. The spokesperson adds: “The political answer is way too weak, justice has a key role to play to send a signal to companies that they are reliable in their quest for utter profit.”

However, a source tells Just Style it’s not clear whether the Chinese government could be guilty of some of the things that is being claimed – especially “genocide”, a highly technical term under internationally accepted agreements that many Western governments believe doesn’t apply in this case. 

Meanwhile, Gherzi Textil Organisation’s partner Bob Antoshak tells Just Style this latest complaint in France is yet another example of so many organisations being critical of the practices in the Xinjiang province.

He says: “Whether it’s forced labour in the cotton fields or manufacturing, official authorities in China have failed to dispel concerns over the treatment of ethnic Uyghurs. In fact, the longer such concerns have lingered, the more organisations worldwide have doubled down on their convictions that forced labour exists, not only tainting the apparel industry but as an affront to humanity.”

Sherpa claims that roughly 20% of global cotton production originates from the Uyghur region, and says this means that approximately one in every five cotton garments could potentially be tainted by Uyghur forced labour.

Sherpa adds that companies using cotton from the region or engaging subcontractors benefiting from Chinese government programmes cannot ignore the possibility that their products may be associated with Uyghur forced labour.

It also says that by marketing and selling these products, the fashion industry is seen as capitalising on the crimes committed against the Uyghur population.

Earlier this year (January), the UK courts ruled against blocking the UK’s import of forced labour cotton from Xinjiang.

At the time Global Legal Action Network explained UK clothing brands and retailers would have faced serious ramifications if the courts ruled the UK government would need to ban imports of cotton products from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).