Lawmakers urge UK to get tough on use of Chinese forced labour

The Beis Committee said it is "appalled" that companies still can't guarantee that their supply chains are free from forced labour. PHOTO: ST FILE

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - A report by UK lawmakers cites "compelling evidence" that major fashion, retail, media and technology companies that do significant business in Britain are complicit in the forced labour of Uighurs 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 labour. There have been widespread reports of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region of northwest China affecting Uighurs and other ethnic minorities over many years.

China's government has been condemned internationally for its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, many of whom are Muslim. The fashion industry, in particular, has been implicated because many Uighurs have been forced to work on cotton fields in the region.

In January the US government issued a ban on any imports containing cotton or tomato products originating in Xinjiang.

The UK report also focused on matters closer to home. It criticised Boohoo Group, the online fast-fashion retailer, for having only minimal data about the different tiers in its supply chain, resulting in labour abuses in the UK.

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 UK 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 labour 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 UK businesses from profiting" from forced labour of Uighurs 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 UK's Environmental Audit Committee said the country needed a new watchdog to enforce rules about making clothes following a string of labour 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 UK 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 UK supply chain next week, the spokesman said.

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

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