German firms face criminal action for alleged human rights abuse in China

The Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) has filed a criminal complaint in Germany against several high-profile textile brands and retailers for allegedly indirectly supporting human rights abuse in China through their supply chains.

“Hugo Boss, Lidl and other companies are allegedly directly or indirectly abetting and profiting from alleged forced labour of the Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in western China and might therefore be involved in crimes against humanity,” stated the ECCHR.

The ECCHR is an independent, non-profit legal and educational organisation dedicated to enforcing civil and human rights worldwide. It was founded in 2007 by Wolfgang Kaleck and other international human rights lawyers.

The group’s goal is to use legal means to “end impunity for those responsible for torture, war crimes, sexual and gender-based violence, corporate exploitation and fortressed borders”.

The ECCHR said that a growing number of reports show that the Chinese government is forcing the Uyghurs in XUAR to work in the textile industry and ready-made garment sector.

“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,” stated the ECCHR.

It said companies may be “contributing to” and are allegedly “complicit in” business models based on forced labour – a risk they should have been aware of.

“European companies may thus be profiting from human rights violations. With the complaints filed in Germany, the ECCHR is asking national public prosecutors to start investigating the legal responsibility of managers of European companies in international crimes,” it added.

“The complaint highlights the potential systematic involvement of European companies in alleged state-sponsored forced labour in the XUAR,” said Miriam Saage-Maaß, head of the ECCHR’s business and human rights programme.

“It is unacceptable that European governments criticise 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 labour are confirmed,” she added.

“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,” continued the ECCHR.

It said Hugo Boss has stressed it does not tolerate any forced or compulsory labour, or forms of modern slavery, and obliges all partners along its supply chain to ensure compliance with human rights.

According to the ECCHR, Hugo Boss has taken the reports and allegations about human rights violations in the XUAR seriously and already asked its direct suppliers to confirm that production of goods in the supply chain was carried out in accordance with its values and standards, and that, in particular, human rights and fair working conditions were observed along the supply chain.

The ECCHR added in its statement that, in response to reports on one supplier, Hugo Boss has also carried out its own audits in production plants, which had not revealed any indications of forced laborers.

The ECCHR also reported that Lidl said it protects the fundamental rights of all those involved in its various supply chain stages. The “zero tolerance” position towards forced and child labour is part of the written “code of conduct”, which obliges Lidl’s contractual partners to comply with and implement social and ecological standards, said the ECCHR.

Lidl has said it will “investigate and take appropriate action” if this position is violated.

The ECCHR’s casework on China began in April this year, when it supported a similar complaint filed by Sherpa, a French group that also uses the law to fight against corporate abuse of human rights. ECCHR said French authorities have already begun investigations.

“German law enforcement should follow this example and initiate investigations,” concluded the ECCHR.

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