Rights activists skeptical as Canadian fashion brands carefully deny using China forced labour

The Post asked six of Canada’s best-known clothing brands if they had investigated whether their supply chains involved forced labour in China

It’s been a tough few months for some of the world’s top apparel brands.

After repudiating cotton allegedly produced with forced labour from China’s Uyghur minority, firms like Nike, Adidas and H&M have faced a sharp backlash in the country, imperilling their access to the lucrative market.

Some told the National Post recently they do not source or have taken steps to avoid sourcing cotton made with forced labour in the Xinjiang region, but only one has joined an international association of manufacturers addressing the issue. None have signed a human-rights consortium‘s pledge to take verifiable action in the area.

Many companies are deeply afraid to talk openly

Companies surveyed by the Post offered broad statements of principle on the topic, but few details about their supply chains in China, or criticism of the country for allegedly coercing Uyghurs into textile work.
One Canadian firm with a growing presence in the China market, Vancouver-based Lululemon Athletica, did not respond to repeated queries about where ingredients for its products originate.
Mehmet Tohti, a Uyghur-Canadian activist, said he takes Canadian manufacturers’ assurances about the issue with a grain of salt.

“Many companies are deeply afraid to talk openly,” said Tohti, citing the recent blacklisting of Western brands in China. “Secondly, there is a huge benefit from forced labour for a company, because you can get the products cheap.”

No Canadian manufacturer has signed a “call to action” developed by the Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region, noted Lori Waller of Above Ground, an Ottawa-based labour-rights group. The manifesto requires brands to eschew any products made in Xinjiang or other workplaces that exploit Uyghur workers.

There is a huge benefit from forced labour for a company, because you can get the products cheap

“It’s really not enough to simply ask suppliers to sign statements that none of their products contain this,” she said. “You need to do some work to verify.”

Meanwhile, little action appears to have flowed from a new set of federal rules designed to counter the use of forced labour in Xinjiang and elsewhere, federal officials indicate.

Human rights groups, the United Nations, journalists and others have documented a broad campaign of repression against the Muslim Uyghurs, including a network of re-education camps believed to hold a million or more people.

Amid reports of forced sterilization and rape in the camps, Canada’s House of Commons, the U.S. and other nations have labeled the actions genocide.

There is also growing evidence that Uyghurs are being compelled to work for meagre pay in factories and in the Xinjiang fields and mills that produce 20 per cent of the world’s cotton. One in five clothing items sold in the West includes such textile, the Uyghur forced-labour coalition estimates.


The Post asked six of Canada’s best-known clothing brands if they had investigated whether their supply chains involved forced labour in China, whether they had concerns on that front and if they were removing any suppliers involved in such work in Xinjiang.

Most cited codes of conduct and other policies that insist on fair labour practices from their suppliers. Few answered the questions directly; one not at all.

The media-relations office at Lululemon, which already has 50 yoga-wear stores in China and has said it wants to expand there, failed to respond to five emailed requests for comment.

Others were somewhat more forthcoming.

Canada Goose, whose CEO recently said China is an “increasingly crucial” market for the parka manufacturer, requires all of its suppliers, “no matter where they are in the world,” to sign a supplier code of conduct barring use of forced labour, the firm said through an outside public-relations firm. The statement did not mention Xinjiang.

Roots, which has 26 “partner-operated” stores in China and two in Hong Kong, said it does not source “any product directly from the Xinjiang” and requires direct suppliers to certify an absence of forced labour, said spokeswoman Kristen Davies. Meanwhile, it continues to “actively review” its supply chain.

Joe Fresh, the cheap-chic fashion line owned by Loblaws, “reached out to vendors for a commitment that they will not use cotton from the Xinjiang region,” said Loblaws spokeswoman Catherine Thomas.

Aritzia “does not manufacture in China’s Xinjiang region and is in full compliance with all trade regulations,” said vice president Renee Smith-Valade. It is also the only one of the companies that belongs to the Better Cotton Initiative, a non-profit that has spoken out about forced-labour in Xinjiang.

Hudson’s Bay, which has several private-label clothing brands, “does not use factories in, or source cotton from, Xinjiang,” stated spokeswoman Tiffany Bourre.

But Penelope Kyritsis of the Washington, D.C.-based Workers Rights Consortium said statements like those of the Canadian companies are little more than rhetoric until they sign on to something like the call to action and vigorously verify their commitments.

“So I couldn’t tell you with satisfaction that their supply chains are free of Uyghur forced labour,” she said.

The new federal regulations implemented last July bar imports of products made wholly or in part from forced labour. They require companies that do business in Xinjiang and get help from the government’s Trade Commissioner to sign a Xinjiang integrity declaration. And they ban exports that could be used in human rights abuses, like Beijing’s omnipresent surveillance of Uyghurs.

Asked repeatedly if any imports have so far been banned, officials from Global Affairs Canada (GAC) and Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) said only that the government is working on the issue.

CBSA is responsible for intervening based on research conducted by Employment and Social Development Canada, but it’s not an easy task, said agency spokeswoman Jacquie Callin.

“There is no visual clue for a Border Services officer to understand the labour standards by which a particular import was produced,” she said. “It takes research, coordination and diligence amongst all stakeholders to establish reliable and actionable sources of information.”

But Waller said there is much that Canada could do now, primarily by making use of work already done by the United States: It has barred numerous Chinese products from entering the U.S. because of suspected involvement of forced labour, including a blanket ban on cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang.

“From everything that we’re hearing so far, it’s still very much in the stage of figuring out how to enforce it,” said Waller about Ottawa’s efforts.

Unless Canada quickly follows the American lead, it risks being used as a “backdoor” by China for getting banned forced-labour products into the U.S., warned Tohti.

One Canadian company has signed the Xinjiang integrity declaration and others are “conducting their due diligence” before signing, though none can be identified for commercial-confidentiality reasons, said a GAC spokesman.

As for rejecting export permits for products that could be used in rights abuses, department officials said only that aggregate information on various types of permit denials is contained in the annual report on Export of Military Goods to be tabled May 31.

But that document offers almost no information on why permits are denied, and none on the export product itself.