According to research by organizations such as Amnesty International, the Chinese government forces the Uyghur population and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang or XUAR) to work in the garment industry, either in the harvesting of cotton, or in the manufacture of yarn. This is allegedly part of a broader strategy to persecute these minorities.
At least since 2017, there have been increasing reports of human rights violations in Xinjiang. International multi-stakeholder initiatives, such as the Fair Labour Association, have warned as of April 2019 that there is high risk of forced labor in the region, and in December 2020, forbade their member companies to source products directly and indirectly from the region. In March 2020, the Better Cotton Initiative declared that, because of state surveillance in the region, it was no longer able to conduct independent visits there. Nevertheless, some companies did not stop their business practices in Xinjiang or only did so during the course of 2020 – thereby contributing to the profitability of a business model that is allegedly based on forced labor.
For this reason, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) submitted a series of criminal complaints in 2021 in Germany and the Netherlands, supported an additional complaint in France, and called upon investigative authorities to examine the alleged complicity of European companies in these violations. The companies named in the complaint sourced or source their products directly or indirectly from the region.
With its criminal complaint from September 2021, ECCHR requests that the German Federal Prosecutor responsible for crimes against international law investigates the potential accountability of the management of German textile brands and distributors for alleged forced labor in supplier companies from the Chinese region of Xinjiang. Together with our partners, we also filed a similar case in the Netherlands in December 2021. In addition to Dutch brands such as State of the Art, the complaint focuses on international businesses whose European headquarters are located in the Netherlands, including Patagonia and Nike.
The companies investigated by ECCHR had or have various firms with production facilities in Xinjiang on their supplier lists. There are indications that these production facilities either employ former Uyghur camp inmates, or hire Uyghurs through state-organized job fairs. Due to the massive state surveillance and systematic repression in XUAR, it cannot be assumed that these people voluntarily took up their employment.
According to the International Labour Organization, such a situation corresponds to the criteria of forced labor: Article 2 of ILO Convention 29 says that forced labor is any work or service which is exacted from persons under the threat of penalty and which they have not offered to do voluntarily. According to available reports from the region, the Chinese government is cracking down on the Uyghur minority with massive surveillance and arbitrary detentions. People who are in detention or even so-called reeducation camps are forced to work in factories. After the reeducation camps, they are sometimes sent directly into industrial jobs, for example, in the textile industry. There is no question of a free choice of job here, nor do people who are brought to so-called job fairs by government agencies as part of the government’s plan to fight poverty have any choice. In light of the general climate of repression, it is also not possible for Uyghurs from rural areas to refuse employment.
The reported companies deny all allegations of forced labor in their supplier factories, and, according to their own statements, already terminated these supplier relationships by the end of 2019, in mid-2020 or at the end of 2020. In some cases, however, they are still ongoing.