A staff member sorts clothes inside a Zara store in Beijing, China, April 16 2021. Picture: REUTERS/TINGSHU WANG
A staff member sorts clothes inside a Zara store in Beijing, China, April 16 2021. Picture: REUTERS/TINGSHU WANG

Leading fashion brands are facing a French probe over allegations they profited from exploiting forced labour in the Chinese Uyghur community to manufacture their products.

A French prosecutor’s office started the investigation in June looking at accusations that Claudie Pierlot parent SMCP, Zara owner Inditex, Skechers and Uniqlo profited from human rights crimes against the Muslim ethnic group, according to an official from the French Prosecution Office. It follows a joint complaint filed in April by various parties including nongovernmental organisations, Sherpa and Ethique sur l’etiquette.

The probe from the Parquet national anti-terroriste shows how a campaign to raise awareness about the plight of the Uyghurs in China has gained traction in Europe. Western fashion brands have been heavily criticised in their home markets for trying to maintain business as usual in China despite allegations that the government is forcing Uyghurs and other minorities to work against their will.

For its part, China has denied the allegations, saying they’re an attempt to undermine successful businesses and it accuses brands of spreading false information amid a rise in nationalistic sentiment in the world’s second-biggest economy. The Xinjiang region produces more than 80% of the country’s cotton.

SMCP and Inditex both strongly denied the accusations and said they would fully co-operate with the French investigation. Inditex said that traceability controls are carried out “rigorously” on their clothing.

While Uniqlo’s parent, Fast Retailing, said it was aware of the report on the probe, it had not been contacted by authorities.

“If and when notified, we will co-operate fully with the investigation to reaffirm there is no forced labour in our supply chains,” the company said in a statement. Skechers declined to comment on pending litigation.

The campaign is being backed by Raphael Glucksmann, a European MP who described the decision to open a probe as “historic”.

“Multinationals have long been above the laws. We’re going to show them the rule of law applies to all, even the wealthiest and most powerful,” he tweeted on Thursday. “This probe is a key moment in a wider battle.”

The legal complaint was lodged in April by human rights lawyer William Bourdon on behalf of the nongovernmental organisations as well as the European Uyghur Institute.

Earlier in 2021, some Western brands such as H&M were targeted by calls for boycott from Chinese social media after the Swedish fast-fashion brand published a statement about concerns over forced-labour allegations in the Xinjiang in China.

Bloomberg. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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