Activist groups are demanding an investigation of a number of leading international fashion brands, accusing them of being complicit in crimes against members of the Uyghur ethnic community in China.
A new complaint was filed in Paris last week by the anticorruption campaign organization Sherpa, the Ethics on Labels collective, the European Uyghur Institute and a Uyghur woman who was detained in a camp run by the Chinese government in the Xinjiang region.
The complaint names the French subsidiary of Japanese clothing giant Uniqlo and its parent company Fast Retailing, as well as Inditex, the owner of the Zara brand, French fashion house SMCP and US-based footwear manufacturer Skechers.
The complaint focuses on the alleged abuses in the Xinjiang region of China. Human rights organizations believe that over a million people, mostly Uyghur Muslims, are being held in "reeducation camps" and that many of them are forced to work against their will.
The activists say the companies are complicit in crimes against humanity, genocide, aggravated bondage and human trafficking.
Specifically, the NGOs believe that the companies do not have full control over their subcontractors, which is causing them to sell goods with components from forced-labor factories.
"Multinational companies who use cotton from the region or resort to subcontractors benefiting from Chinese government programs cannot ignore that their products could be made with Uyghur forced labor," the complaint added. "By marketing these products, the fashion industry is profiting from the serious crimes committed against this population."
The statement also said that "20% of the world's cotton production originates from the Uyghur region, so one in five cotton garments could be tainted by Uyghur forced labor."
The Chinese government has dismissed claims of forced labor and insists the camps are vocational centers designed to stop the spread of extremism.
US ban on Xinjiang products
In a statement to DW, a spokesperson for Fast Retailing in Tokyo said that the company was aware of the complaint due to media reports.
"While we have not been notified by the authorities, if and when notified, we will cooperate fully with the investigation to reaffirm there is no forced labor in our supply chains," the company said.
The same groups filed a similar complaint in April 2021. However, the public prosecutor in Paris shut it down on the grounds that it did not have the jurisdiction to prosecute this type of offense.
Three months after the original complaint was filed, the US Senate passed a ban on importing products from Xinjiang, unless it can be proven they are free of forced labor.
HRW says China puts pressure on companies over due diligence
While Human Rights Watch is not one of the organizations behind the complaint filed in Paris, its activists are closely monitoring China's treatment of its minorities. The group also has deep concerns that components made by forced labor are finding their way into clothing sold by famous brands.
"In our view, the Chinese government's constraints are so profound that companies cannot do due diligence inspections; their inspectors cannot turn up at these sites and ascertain if workers are being treated fairly," said Sophie Richardson, director of the organization's Chinese human rights operations.
"Companies often characterize their opponents as being anti-business, but that is just not the case," she told DW. "We expect all companies to publish their human rights due diligence reports to ensure that they are not creating or contributing to human rights violations."
"If we can go through this exercise and fix the problems, then these companies can continue," she added.
The problem, however, is the lack of access in areas tightly controlled by the Chinese government. The authorities have also been putting pressure on foreign companies that do try to carry out due diligence studies, Richardson said.
Companies hesitant to anger China
Roy Larke, senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Waikoto, in New Zealand, and an expert on retailing and consumer behavior, points out that brands "have an ethical and moral obligation to uphold basic human rights."
A clothing giant such as the Japanese Uniqlo will understand the "likely commercial consequences if it were found to be failing in this obligation," he added.
Yet Uniqlo was decidedly slow in withdrawing from Russia after the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, waiting until August to "suspend" operations. And that was after a previous announcement that it would remain in the Russian market was met with a strong public backlash.
"Rather than the brand's moral stance, there is, of course, the issue of just how much a brand's customers actually care, particularly when that brand is providing good quality products at a reasonable cost," said Larke.
"For Uniqlo and many other international brands, there is also the problem of dealing with criticisms of this and other supply chain issues in China when, at the same time, China is a vital market for the brand," he added.
There are presently around 925 Uniqlo stores in China compared to around 720 in Japan, and China will be a major part of the brand's push towards 5 trillion yen (€33.3 billion, $35.8 billion) in global annual sales.
"As a global player, it cannot afford to be seen to support proven human rights abuses, but equally, it cannot afford to upset the Chinese government — and, as with the majority of international brands, Uniqlo, they have the right to be considered innocent until proven otherwise," he emphasized.