France is investigating claims that Zara, Sketchers, and Uniqlo used forced Uyghur labor in China

French prosecutors have on Friday, July 2 opened an investigation into alleged involvement in crimes against humanity based on accusations that global retailers, including Uniqlo and the makers of Skechers shoes and Zara clothes, rely on forced labor of minorities in China.
French prosecutors have on Friday, July 2 opened an investigation into alleged involvement in crimes against humanity based on accusations that global retailers, including Uniqlo and the makers of Skechers shoes and Zara clothes, rely on forced labor of minorities in China.

  • French prosecutors are investigating Zara, Sketchers, and Uniqlo, amid claims that the retailers used forced Uyghur labor.
  • Legal complaints were filed in France by an exiled Uyghur worker and various human rights groups.
  • The Chinese government has denied any claims of forced labor in Xinjiang.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

French prosecutors have opened an investigation into alleged involvement in crimes against humanity based on claims that global retailers, including Uniqlo and the makers of Skechers shoes and Zara clothes, rely on forced labor of minorities in China’s Xinjiang region.

The Chinese government on Friday reiterated denials of any forced labor in Xinjiang, and lashed out at what it called interference in its internal affairs.

The investigation was opened last month by the crimes against humanity unit of France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office, a judicial official said Friday. The office has special universal jurisdiction to prosecute crimes beyond French borders.

The probe was based on a legal complaint filed in France earlier this year by a Uyghur worker in exile and three human rights groups: Sherpa, the Uyghur Institute of Europe and Ethics on the Label Collective.

The investigation doesn’t name a suspected perpetrator, but is aimed at determining who might be at fault and face eventual charges of involvement in crimes against humanity, the judicial official said. Such a procedure is standard under French law. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.

The complaint names Japanese retailer Uniqlo, U.S. shoemaker Skechers, French company SMCP and Spanish retailer Inditex, owner of Zara. The rights groups say the companies are benefiting from a Chinese system of repression against Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

China has come under criticism and sanctions for detaining more than 1 million Uyghurs and and other Muslim minorities for political re-education in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, and for imprisoning or intimidating into silence those it sees as potential opponents from Tibet to Hong Kong.

Uniqlo said in a statement to The AP on Friday that it hadn’t been formally notified of the investigation, but would cooperate fully with French authorities “to reaffirm there is no forced labor in our supply chains.”

The company said none of its production partners are located in Xinjiang. “There has been no evidence of forced labor or any other human rights violation at any of our suppliers. If there is evidence, we will cease to do business with that supplier,” it said.

Skechers said earlier this year that regular audits of its facilities in China have found no sign of forced labor.

Inditex says on its website that it takes “a zero-tolerance approach towards forced labor in any of its manifestations and we implement policies and procedures to ensure that this practice does not take place anywhere in our supply chain.”

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, said Friday: “We have repeatedly stressed that the so-called ‘forced labor’ in Xinjiang is a lie concocted by a small number of anti-China elements from the U.S. and a few other countries, with the aim of disrupting Xinjiang and containing China.”

“We firmly oppose any external forces interfering in China’s internal affairs through Xinjiang-related issues,” he continued.

The human rights groups celebrated the French investigation and expressed hopes it will help shine a light on what is happening in Xinjiang.

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Chinese authorities reportedly interrogated workers linked to US company Verité, which investigates supply-chain labor abuses in the country

A Uyghur woman holds up a photograph as evidence in a wood paneled room in London
Uyghur teacher Qelbinur Sidik speaks at a hearing in London in June on China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims.

  • Workers linked to a US company were interrogated by Chinese officials in April, sources told Axios.
  • The workers were linked to nonprofit Verité, which investigates labor abuses in global supply chains.
  • The State Department said it was “deeply concerned” by the reports.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

At least seven people working in partnership with a US labor-rights company were interrogated for several days by Chinese officials, Axios reported.

Chinese authorities questioned people working on behalf of Verité in April, Axios reported, citing several unnamed sources familiar with the matter. Verité is a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that investigates possible labor abuses in supply chains.

The US State Department was “deeply concerned by reports that supply-chain auditors have been detained, threatened, harassed and subjected to constant surveillance while conducting their vital work in China,” a spokesperson told Axios.

It is not clear whether the people were Verité employees or contractors, or which company’s supply chain they were investigating.

Since 2016, China has detained about 1 million Uyghurs in their homeland of Xinjiang in hundreds of prison camps. It claims they are a terror threat. The US government has criticized China for its suspected use of forced labor of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, and human-rights groups accuse China of committing “crimes against humanity.” The Chinese government has denied that it uses forced labor in Xinjiang.

Chinese consumers threatened to boycott major clothing brands, including H&M and Nike, after the companies said they would not use cotton produced in Xinjiang.

It is not clear whether the workers were investigating Xinjiang-linked supply chains.

Verité aims to “empower workers to advocate for their rights,” according to its website. It lists Nestlé, Asos, and Disney among its partners and clients.

Verité did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

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A major Apple supplier is reportedly using forced labor from thousands of Uighur workers to make glass for iPhones

Apple CEO Tim Cook in China, March 2019
Apple CEO Tim Cook at the Economic Summit held for the China Development Forum in Beijing in March 2019.

A major Apple supplier is using forced labor from thousands of Uighur workers in its factories, a new report from the Tech Transparency Project found.

“Our research shows that Apple’s use of forced labor in its supply chain goes far beyond what the company has acknowledged,” Katie Paul, the director of the Tech Transparency Project, told The Washington Post.

Evidence of Lens Technology’s use of forced labor was available publicly, hidden in plain sight as government propaganda in news media, according to the Tech Transparency Project. Lens has for years supplied Apple with glass for iPhones, and the company also works with Amazon and Tesla, The Post noted.

Read more: How Apple, Google, and other browser makers are quietly duking it out over the future of the web

The group’s report details a variety of Chinese media reports that portray worker transfers as voluntarily relocating, often with a positive spin.

Apple didn’t respond to Business Insider’s request for comment, but a representative, Josh Rosenstock, told The Post: “Apple has zero tolerance for forced labor. Looking for the presence of forced labor is part of every supplier assessment we conduct, including surprise audits. These protections apply across the supply chain, regardless of a person’s job or location. Any violation of our policies has immediate consequences, including possible business termination. As always, our focus is on making sure everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and we will continue doing all we can to protect workers in our supply chain.”

Apple has been repeatedly accused of labor issues in China and has even broken business relationships with major suppliers as a result. As recently as  March, a major report found that Apple benefited from forced Uighur labor through its Chinese suppliers.

Though Apple has taken a public stance against these practices, the company reportedly joined Coca-Cola and Nike in lobbying efforts to weaken a bill designed to ban US companies from relying on Chinese forced labor.

Read The Washington Post’s full report here.

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