Labour rights activists have criticised a Japanese fashion retailer for failing to prevent malpractices by one of its mainland suppliers. The supplier’s parent company denies any wrongdoing.

Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and a labour rights group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour held a demonstration at Uniqlo’s store in Causeway Bay on Wednesday.

The groups accused the Japanese retailer of “turning a blind eye” to malpractices of Shenzhen Artigas Clothing and Leather, a factory that supplies garments for Uniqlo.

The groups said that Artigas had shut down in early June without any warning to its workers. The factory also reportedly refused to provide severance pay or contribute to the government-mandated social insurance plan for workers.

Labour rights groups protested at Uniqlo store on Wednesday. Photo: Global Solidarity Action to Support Artigas Workers via Facebook.

More than 900 workers have been on strike for 37 days since the closure, and some have gone on a hunger strike, the groups said. A striker, Wu Weihua, has been detained and charged with obstructing official business.

“As an international company, Uniqlo has the responsibility to intervene,” Mung Siu-tat, chief executive of HKCTU, told HKFP. “Uniqlo’s lack of response to the demands of hundreds of workers seems to contradict its image of a company that cares about society.”

Mung said that activists in Hong Kong had sent a letter to Uniqlo and held several protests at the retailer’s stores. He added that Uniqlo had issued a statement last month, saying that the company did monitor its factories. It would either improve conditions or terminate contracts with suppliers who are found to contravene regulations.

“But a month has gone by, and we haven’t seen Uniqlo do anything to make the Artigas factory resolve the disputes,” said Mung. “It seems to us that Uniqlo’s statement was meant to be a show more than an actual promise.”

Seventy-four rights groups and unions from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, the United States and other countries have signed a global petition to urge Uniqlo to resolve the labour dispute.

Workers at Artigas have been on strike since early June. Photo: SACOM via Facebook.

Lever Style, a Hong Kong-based garment manufacturer that manages the Artigas factory, said in a statement last month that it had conducted meetings with the workers on strike, but no consensus had been reached.

The manufacturer denied the charges, saying that it only wanted to relocate all 900 workers to another Lever Style facility in the same district, and it is not legally required to pay compensation for the relocation.

It also said that it had met “all of its legal obligations with respect to the payment of retirement benefits”, and the Chinese government had confirmed this.

Lever Style said that more than 500 workers have moved to the other facility, but 300 remain at the first factory.

Artigas managers, workers and police at the factory. Photo: Global Solidarity Action to Support Artigas Workers via Facebook.

In December, more than 1,000 workers at Artigas went on strike after the factory failed to pay social insurance contributions for the workers. The Chinese police cracked down on the demonstrations and took away around 20 workers, according to rights groups.

At that time, activists in Hong Kong targeted Uniqlo and Hong Kong retailer G2000, both buyers of the Artigas factory. New People’s Party lawmaker Michael Tien, also founder of G2000, responded in December that he would investigate the matter and reserve the right to take legal action against Artigas for damaging G2000’s reputation.

Lever Style also produces clothes for brands such as Armani, Banana Republic and Ralph Lauren.

Update (15:30): Uniqlo has responded that it is “deeply concerned” with the labour strike, and has asked Lever Style to resolve the dispute as soon as possible. The company has made three requests to Lever Style: negotiate with the workers, keep their benefits packages, and keep the workers in their jobs. The company said that as part of their corporate social responsibility, labour rights and welfare of its supply chain is their high-priority concern.

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Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.