Human Rights Now, together with Hong Kong based NGO, SACOM (Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour) held press conferences for domestic and international media following the release of a report on working conditions at fashion brand Uniqlo’s Chinese manufacturing plants.  The report revealed a number of human rights issues at two factories subcontracted by Fast Retailing company, which owns the Uniqlo brand.  SACOM project officer, Alexandra Chang and HRN director, Kazuko Ito discussed the findings at the press conferences on January 15 and 16 in Tokyo.

Toyokeizai magazine reported that Uniqlo had been chosen for the investigation by SACOM because of their international expansion in the fast fashion industry and the fact that the substantial amount of business they do with the factories.  Uniqlo is known for high quality clothing at low prices, but Ms Chan emphasised that the low cost to consumers should not mean a compromised working environment for labourers.  An Asahi Shimbun article noted that average working hours in the factories exceeded 300 per month for many workers, exceeding overtime limitations under Chinese labour law. Mainichi reported that Fast Retailing had issued a statement saying it would take action to ensure fair payment and accounting of working hours, curb excess overtime and improve conditions on factory floors of its suppliers in response to the complaints by SACOM and HRN.  Further, Fast Retailing had conducted its own investigation and corroborated some of the complaints.  In a statement, the company said, “Respecting human rights and ensuring appropriate working conditions for the workers of our production partners are top priorities for Fast Retailing, and in this we are completely aligned with SACOM,” Bloomberg reported that Fast Retailing would work with its subcontracting factories to ensure that working hours were reduced in line with labour laws within one month. The Japan Times reported that Electronics Co. Pacific Textiles Ltd. and Dongguan Tomwell Garment Co., who are the subjects of SACOM’s report, are leading players in the industry who employ thousands of workers.  Fast Retailing vowed to increase the number of holidays, make improvements to the working environment, including air quality and temperature checks, and rethink the use of fines and other penalties used to punish employees for mistakes in workmanship. The company also promised to carry out more unannounced checks on the factories, the newspaper said. Ms Chan said she also hoped to see Fast Retailing encourage the factories to provide proper education and training for an organized labour union for the workers.

An article published by ABC News (US) also reported that Fast Retailing planned to step up monitoring at its Chinese factories, including those that supply fabrics for the garments it produces.  Ms Chan welcomed the response, saying that SACOM would keep monitoring the suppliers of Uniqlo in China.  She also said that overall, conditions at Chinese factories have been improving as global brands move to protect their corporate reputations.  Ms Kazuko Ito of HRN was quoted as saying, “The root cause of the problem is low-cost competition worldwide. Uniqlo is a champion of this market, especially in the garment industry. But many other companies might have this problem.”  CNN reported that Fast Retailing promised to introduce a hotline for employees to report problems.  The article noted problems with poor ventilation at the Chinese factories addressed as a health concern in SACOM’s report. Strong chemicals are used in the manufacturing process and the investigation found inadequate ventilation and drainage of waste water.