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The coalition's complaint to the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise relies in part on evidence from a 2020 study identifying 27 factories in nine Chinese provinces that use Uyghur forced labour.Fred Dufour/The Associated Press

A coalition of human-rights groups is asking a federal watchdog to investigate allegations that some products sold by 14 Canadian companies are made in whole or in part with forced labour in China.

The coalition filed a complaint Sunday with the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE), which was set up by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to investigate accusations of human-rights abuses arising from Canadian corporate activity abroad.

The office, which operates at arm’s length from the government, has a mandate to probe wrongdoing linked to overseas corporate conduct in three sectors: mining, petroleum and the garment industry. It reports publicly on its investigations, but does not have the power to compel companies to take specific actions.

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Almost all the Canadian companies listed in the complaint are subsidiaries of U.S. or other international firms. Their operations include activity in the clothing or mining industries.

The companies named in the complaint are Costco Canada, Gap (Canada) Inc., Hugo Boss Canada Inc., Nike Canada, Ralph Lauren Canada LP, Zara Canada Inc., Diesel Canada Inc., Guess? Canada Corporation, Levi Strauss & Co. (Canada) Inc., Walmart Canada Corp., Lululemon Canada, Amazon Canada, Dynasty Gold Corp. and GobiMin Inc.

The 28 advocacy groups include the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, the Canadian Council of Imams, the Toronto Association for Democracy in China and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, which was founded by former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler.

China’s northwestern Xinjiang region produces a fifth of the world’s cotton. Researchers, rights groups and media reports say the Chinese government has committed grave human-rights violations against the region’s largely Muslim Uyghur population, as well as other minorities.

Forced labour and forced relocation to work in other provinces, China’s critics say, is the latest stage in a government-directed effort to exert control in Xinjiang, which Beijing has described as being infected with extremism. A significant portion of the global supply of the silicon material used to make solar panels also comes from the region.

The complaint to CORE relies in part on evidence from a 2020 study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which identified 27 factories in nine Chinese provinces that use Uyghur forced labour. The think tank gathered data that it said shows these factories form parts of the supply chains of 82 global brands, including Gap, Ralph Lauren, Zara, Diesel, Guess, Levi’s, Walmart and Hugo Boss.

Two companies named in the complaint raised concerns with the ASPI report. Debbie Herdere, vice-president of internal audit at Guess? Inc., said none of the factories linked to Guess by ASPI were present in the company’s supply chain. Levi Strauss & Co. chief sustainability officer Jeffrey Hogue also said his company was not sourcing from factories identified in the ASPI report, and was not doing so at the time the report was published.

In addition to using the ASPI data, the advocacy groups making the complaint to CORE did their own research by reviewing bills of lading for shipments into Canada by some – but not all – of the companies they name.

The Canadian government committed in 2018 to barring imports made with forced labour. The pledge was part of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Canada enacted a legal prohibition in mid-2020. In early 2021, shortly before Parliament declared China’s treatment of Uyghurs to be genocide, Ottawa announced it would be cracking down on forced-labour products from China.

Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Ottawa-based Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, said he believes this complaint will test whether Canada’s new ombudsperson has been granted the capacity to investigate areas previously untouched by Ottawa’s scrutiny, such as international supply chains. He said he hopes a probe will drive Canada to take greater action against imports made with forced labour.

In the complaint, the groups raise concerns about companies using cotton produced in China, which has a high likelihood of coming from the Xinjiang region. Reliance on Chinese cotton could mean that forced labour is present in companies’ supply chains even if they monitor their own factories for human rights standards.

Guess’s Ms. Herdere said that when companies buy finished goods from suppliers who have sourced materials themselves, it can be challenging to determine whether the fibres were grown in Xinjiang.

“That’s a challenge that not only our company has, but many companies,” she said. “These fibres just don’t stay in that province. They move all around the world.”

Guess has a code of conduct that forbids the use of “forced, prisoned, indentured or bonded labour.” The company is monitoring the Uyghur situation to ensure compliance with its code, Ms. Herdere said.

Mr. Hogue of Levi Strauss said the company has no business relationships with fabric mills in Xinjiang and does not source products there. “We’ve made it clear to all our suppliers globally that we cannot accept any materials, including cotton, produced using forced labour or managed by entities implicated in forced labour, and we continue to review on an ongoing basis all supplier relationships to determine if any supplier or their sub-suppliers or subsidiaries have any links to forced labour or human trafficking,” he wrote in an e-mailed statement.

Hugo Boss spokesperson Dawn Bellini said in an e-mailed statement that the company has not sourced ready-made garments from Xinjiang. “We insist that our suppliers, and all along the supply chain, adhere to our rigorous ethical standards as contained in our Supplier Code of Conduct and Human Rights Policy, and we conduct audits – own and third party – at our suppliers’ production facilities to ensure compliance,” she wrote.

Amazon Canada spokesperson Kristin Gable did not address the complaint directly, but sent an earlier statement the company had issued in response to a report released in March by the Tech Transparency Project, which the complaint cited. The Tech Transparency report noted the names of Amazon suppliers that used forced labour in China, and also warned of third-party sellers on Amazon that offer products made in Xinjiang.

Amazon’s statement said it no longer sources products from textiles manufacturer Esquel Group, one of the suppliers named in the report, which owns a subsidiary subject to U.S. sanctions for its involvement in forced labour.

Gap Canada declined to comment on the complaint. Representatives for Costco, Nike, Ralph Lauren, Zara, Diesel, Walmart, Lululemon and Dynasty Gold did not respond to requests for comment.

GobiMIn completed its drilling program at a gold project in Xinjiang in 2014, but has not gone into production, president and chief executive officer Felipe Tan wrote in an e-mail. Another extraction project has involved in-laboratory work with a few scientists and on-site workers, he wrote. “Our human resources department has spent reasonable checking procedures on the workers and the scientists of the research institution to verify and ensure that beyond reasonable doubt that the rules and rights of choosing one’s job are [their] own decision and selecting the staff according to their capabilities,” he wrote.

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