Ottawa’s corporate ethics watchdog announced an investigation into fashion company Ralph Lauren for alleged use of forced labor in its supply chains, while also notifying a Toronto-based mining company.
The Canadian ombudsman for the responsible company, Sheri Meyerhoffer, said it is unclear if Ralph Lauren Canada LP is doing enough to remove components related to the alleged mistreatment of China’s Uyghur minority.
Meyerhoffer also asked Toronto-based mining company GobiMin Inc. to improve its policies to prevent the potential use of forced labor in its supply chains.
Their report says that, in response to their inquiries, Ralph Lauren insisted last November that it is a US company not subject to Canadian jurisdiction and provided information in June about the measures it has in place to prevent mistreatment.
“The refusal to participate in the initial evaluation stage (of the ombudsman), followed by a last-minute change indicating a willingness to participate and collaborate in the (…) process, has made it difficult to complete the evaluation,” the statement said. read in a report issued on Tuesday.
Meyerhoffer noted that corporate due diligence and policies aimed at reducing the risk of forced labor “must include an open, participatory and responsive space to address complaints or grievances raised by stakeholders.”
China denies accusations that Uyghur citizens are being used for forced labor in what it has called “detention” centers or “re-education” camps. Beijing insists the centers are meant to stamp out Islamic radicalization after several deadly domestic attacks.
But the United Nations discovered in mid-2022 that China had committed “serious human rights violations” against the Uyghurs and other Muslim communities that “may constitute international crimes, including crimes against humanity.”
The US government has said that cotton and tomato products from China are at particularly high risk of involving Uyghur forced labor.
In his report on Tuesday, Meyerhoffer cited two suppliers that supply textile materials to Ralph Lauren. Both sellers have been accused by investigators of buying cotton from Xinjiang through middlemen or cooperating in the transfer of workers subjected to forced labor.
Meyerhoffer noted that Ralph Lauren has issued multiple corporate statements and has done reports on human rights. The company also says it is going through a process to improve its data on upstream suppliers.
But he said it’s not clear from those documents how thorough the company’s efforts are in using fiber-origin tracing technology to make sure it isn’t using slave labor products.
The ombudsman chose not to include in her investigation 26 shipments to Canada of Ralph Lauren products involving a Chinese company accused of forced labor.
While the shipments occurred until August 2021, long after Ralph Lauren announced in July 2020 that it does not use Xinjiang yarn, textiles or products, the products that arrived in Canada were ordered before the company cut ties with the supplier.
Meyerhoffer has encouraged the company to initiate mediation with the whistleblowers, a coalition of human rights groups that includes numerous Uyghur organizations. She said the process can happen in private, with the ombudsman reviewing the final result.
Had the company toyed with its investigation early in the process, the whistleblowers would have agreed to seek confidential mediation in the first place and not name Ralph Lauren publicly, Meyerhoffer said.
The ombudsman also announced Tuesday that she has asked mining company GobiMin to improve its corporate reporting, following claims it hired local companies that used forced labor at a gold mine in Xinjiang before selling the mine to a Chinese company. last year.
“GobiMin has not provided information that it took appropriate steps to ensure a responsible exit when it sold its interest (in the mine),” its report says.
He noted that the sale of the Sawayaerdun mine limits his ability to launch an investigation, but said the company could better explain its claim that it has no Uyghur workers and detail how it prevents forced labor.
Meyerhoffer said he has asked the company to send him draft guidance this year on future divestments of more assets. A final version of the document would have to be published by mid-March next year.
The office is also investigating Nike, Dynasty Gold Corp.
The reports mark the ombudsman’s third and fourth initial assessments. Meyehoffer reported similar allegations last month regarding Nike Canada Corp. and Dynasty Gold Corp.
All four reports relate to China’s Xinjiang region, where most of the country’s Uyghur population lives.
The Chinese embassy in Ottawa maintains that Beijing does not allow modern slavery.
“The charge of ‘forced labor’ in Xinjiang is a big lie concocted by anti-China forces to denigrate China for the sole purpose of destabilizing Xinjiang and restraining China’s development, under the pretext of so-called ‘human rights issues’. ‘”. ‘ a spokesperson wrote in response to earlier reports from Meyerhoffer last month.
“It is completely opposite to the reality in Xinjiang, where cotton and other industries depend on large-scale mechanized production, and the rights of workers from all ethnic groups…are duly protected.”
Meyerhoffer’s office opened in 2018, and critics say it lacks the tools it needs to be effective, such as being able to obtain documents and testimony.
If you find that a company is not acting in good faith, you can blacklist it from Canadian support, such as business advice and business advocacy abroad. But his mandate does not allow him to penalize companies with fines or other punitive measures.
The Canadian press has contacted Ralph Lauren and GobiMin