The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights filed a criminal complaint in Germany against several high-profile textile brands and retailers. Hugo Boss, Lidl and other companies are allegedly directly or indirectly abetting and profiting from alleged forced labor of the Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in western China and might therefore be involved in crimes against humanity.
The Chinese government is forcing the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) to work in the textile industry in the areas of cotton and yarn supply and the ready-made garment sector as a growing number of reports, e.g. of Amnesty International show. International law experts have qualified the treatment of Uyghurs in the region as amounting to crimes against humanity. Yet, European clothing brands and retailers source or have until recently sourced goods from companies in that region, according to the supplier lists they publish. According to ECCHR, the companies may be contributing to and are allegedly complicit in a business model based on forced labor – a risk they should have been aware of. European companies may thus be profiting from human rights violations. With the complaints filed in Germany, ECCHR is asking national public prosecutors to start investigating the legal responsibility of managers of European companies in international crimes.
“The complaint highlights the potential systematic involvement of European companies in alleged state-sponsored forced labor in the XUAR,” says Miriam Saage-Maaß, head of ECCHR’s Business and Human Rights program. “It is unacceptable that European governments criticize China on human rights violations, while European companies may be profiting from the exploitation of the Uyghur population. It is high time that those responsible in the companies are held accountable if suspicions of forced labor are confirmed.”
This case exemplifies that companies must comply with international criminal law standards when doing business in repressive countries. Companies must avoid potentially aiding and abetting crimes under international law and other human rights violations.
Hugo Boss emphasizes that the company does not tolerate any forced or compulsory labor or forms of modern slavery and obliges all partners along the supply chain to ensure compliance with human rights and not to tolerate any violations. Hugo Boss had taken the reports and allegations regarding human rights violations in the region very seriously and had already asked its direct suppliers many months ago to confirm that the production of goods in the supply chain was carried out in accordance with Hugo Boss’ values and standards and that, in particular, human rights and fair working conditions were observed along the supply chain. In response to the reports on one supplier, Hugo Boss had also carried out its own audits in the production plants, which had not revealed any indications of the use of forced laborers.
Lidl emphasizes that the company protects the fundamental rights of all those involved in the various stages of the supply chains. The “zero tolerance” position towards forced and child labor is part of the written “Code of Conduct,” which obliges Lidl’s contractual partners to comply with and implement social and ecological standards. Should Lidl have specific facts regarding violations of this, Lidl will investigate and take appropriate action. In this context, there have also been closures of production sites. Lidl has not been working with the producer named on the March 2021 supplier list for more than a year. The same applies to the producer named on the supplier lists of December 2019 and March 2020. The producer named on all three supplier lists has not worked for Lidl since the end of June, and Lidl does not plan to award any more contracts to the company. Lidl, he said, continuously and systematically reviews potential risks such as human rights violations in the supply chains of its private label products and takes remedial action as needed. All production sites of Lidl’s own non-food brands would be regularly audited by independent and local experts according to the recognized BSCI or SA 8000 standard.
The casework on China began in April 2021, when ECCHR supported a similar complaint filed by Sherpa in France. French authorities have already begun investigations. German law enforcement should follow this example and initiate investigations.