The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) has filed criminal charges against several German clothing brands and retailers with the Attorney General in Karlsruhe. “Aid and complicity in crimes against humanity in the form of slavery through forced labor”, such is the allegation. Essentially, the focus is on the activities of companies in China and the issue of their trade relations in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are locked up in re-education camps on the border with Kazakhstan. Experts estimate that from September to November, up to half a million Uyghurs are likely to harvest cotton from Xinjiang’s fields, mostly by hand and against their will. The Chinese government denies the existence of forced labor in Xinjiang, talks about training and work programs to fight extremism in the region.
If companies in such a situation continue to award contracts to companies that have production facilities in Xinjiang, the question arises whether this does not promote forced labor, says international lawyer Miriam Saage-Maaß of ECCHR: “We see this as the task of justice to clarify this issue. It is not clear whether the Federal Prosecutor’s Office will determine whether there is even a basis for a criminal investigation.
For example, the discount Lidl is mentioned by name in the advertisement, which is available to the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Report Mainz. According to its list of suppliers, the company had relationships with three textile companies based in Kashgar, in southern Xinjiang. At least two of these companies are said to have employed former detainees from re-education camps and thus actively supported the policy of the Chinese apparatus in Xinjiang. Upon request, Lidl announced that it had not worked with two companies for “over a year”, and not since the end of June with the third company.
The United States imposed a ban on importing cotton from Xinjiang
The first indications that forced laborers may be used in fields in Xinjiang date back nearly three years. In April 2019, the Fair Labor Association highlighted the risks of forced labor in Xinjiang. In July 2020, the US Department of Commerce blacklisted individual companies operating in Xinjiang. In December 2020, the Fair Labor Association banned its members from sourcing raw materials, operating supplies or finished products from the region due to the high risk of forced labor. In January 2021, the US government finally imposed a blanket import ban on cotton from Xinjiang. Only five months later, Lidl stopped doing business in the area.
However, proving compulsion for individual supplier companies is extremely difficult, as the human rights organization tries, says sinologist Björn Alpermann of the University of Würzburg, who has been studying Xinjiang for many years. years and analyzed the ad. “In any of the reported cases, I cannot find clear evidence of forced labor,” he said, but there are “many suspicious factors that should be investigated.
Just how Independent audits, which are mainly referred to as audits in the industry, are almost no longer taking place. In the case of Xinjiang, many specialist testing companies are now refusing to assess the human rights situation in the textile supply chain. The world’s five largest auditing companies, including TÜV Süd, said in September 2020 that they would no longer offer inspection services in Xinjiang because a reliable audit could no longer be guaranteed due to law enforcement actions. and the establishment of a police state in the Region. However, the basis of human and labor rights audits in factories are discussions with workers who can express themselves freely. In Xinjiang, this is currently unimaginable.
It is unclear how many supply chains of German and international textile companies still reach Xinjiang, as only some of the companies actually publish their delivery lists. This means that the public will focus on companies that are more transparent than others. It is now up to the federal prosecutor to decide whether to investigate the complaint or to file it.