Lawmakers Urge U.K. to Get Tough on Use of Chinese Forced Labor

A report by U.K. lawmakers cites “compelling evidence” that major fashion, retail, media and technology companies that do significant business in Britain are complicit in the forced labor of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China.

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee said it is “appalled” that companies still can’t guarantee that their supply chains are free from forced labor. There have been widespread reports of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region of northwest China affecting Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities over many years.

China’s government has been condemned internationally for its treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, many of whom are Muslim. The fashion industry, in particular, has been implicated because many Uyghurs have been forced to work on cotton fields in the region. In January the U.S. government issued a ban on any imports containing cotton or tomato products originating in Xinjiang.

The U.K. report also focused on matters closer to home. It criticized Boohoo Group Plc, the online fast-fashion retailer, for having only minimal data about the different tiers in its supply chain, resulting in labor abuses in the U.K. Boohoo has been under fire over the past year since allegations emerged that workers at supplier factories in Leicester, England, were paid less than minimum wage and worked in unsafe conditions.

The BEIS report calls on the U.K. government to strengthen the country’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 because it “lacks teeth” and hasn’t kept pace with changes in global practices. Lawmakers want new measures compelling companies to ensure forced labor plays no part in their supply chains, options for civil penalties in the event of non-compliance, and a policy framework for creating lists of businesses that do or don’t meet human rights obligations.

‘Sorry Absence’

“Amid compelling evidence of abuses, there has been a sorry absence of significant new government measures to prohibit U.K. businesses from profiting” from forced labor of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and other parts of China, said Nusrat Ghani, the Conservative member of Parliament who led the BEIS committee inquiry, in a statement.

The findings come less than a week after the U.K.’s Environmental Audit Committee said the country needed a new watchdog to enforce rules about making clothes following a string of labor scandals in Leicester factories.

In response to the BEIS report, a Boohoo spokesman noted that the company was one of only a handful that agreed to give evidence to the committee, which “acknowledged and welcomed” the retailer’s appointment of U.K. judge Brian Leveson to supervise an overhaul of its processes.

“Boohoo has made extensive improvements to its supply chain practices” and looks forward to publishing details of its U.K. supply chain next week, the spokesman said.

Boohoo last year commissioned Alison Levitt, a prominent U.K. lawyer, to carry out an independent review, which found that the retailer had prioritized profit and growth and ignored concerns about labor violations. The review cleared the company of direct involvement.

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