Walmart, Diesel and Hugo Boss face federal probe for alleged sale of items made with forced labour

A watchdog created by the federal government to probe corporate wrongdoing abroad says it is opening investigations into whether three clothing retailers, Walmart Canada, Hugo Boss Canada and Diesel Canada, are selling products made in China with Uyghur forced labour.

These are the fourth, fifth and sixth investigations announced by the office of the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) since it began accepting complaints in March, 2021. Last month, CORE announced investigations into Nike Canada and Canadian mining company Dynasty Gold, and earlier in August it announced an investigation into Ralph Lauren Canada.

The federal watchdog is investigating all of the companies in response to complaints filed last year by a coalition of human-rights groups. Those organizations asked for a probe into allegations that some products sold by 14 Canadian companies – most of them subsidiaries of large U.S. businesses – are made with forced labour in China. CORE is expected to decide whether to investigate the remaining complaints in the coming weeks.

China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, which produces one-fifth of the world’s cotton, has been the focus of reports by media, researchers and rights groups, who say Beijing has committed grave human-rights violations against the region’s largely Muslim Uyghur population, as well as other minorities there. Among the alleged abuses is the widespread use of forced labour.

In 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor said an estimated 100,000 Uyghurs and other members of ethnic minorities in China may have been working in conditions of forced labour after having been detained in re-education camps. Michelle Bachelet, who was the United Nations high commissioner for human rights until August, 2022, visited Xinjiang last year. Her office’s report on the trip said China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the region may amount to crimes against humanity.

The complaint to CORE cited a March, 2020, Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) report, which identified two Chinese companies the group had found were operating factories in Walmart Canada’s supply chain. Those facilities, the report said, were subjecting Uyghurs to work under conditions “that strongly suggest forced labour.” The report also cited a second report, published in November, 2020, by Laura Murphy, a professor at Sheffield Hallam University’s Helena Kennedy Center for International Justice. Prof. Murphy’s report identified three China-based manufacturers allegedly linked to forced labour in Walmart’s supply chain...

This was excerpted from the 24 August 2023 edition of The Globe and Mail.