The IOC has insisted that its uniforms for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics supplied by Anta Sports and HYX Group do not include "forced, bonded, indentured or child labour" ©Getty Images

Two leading human rights groups have accused the International Olympic Committee (IOC) of failing to conduct due diligence to ensure that its Beijing 2022 uniforms were connected to forced labour in Xinjiang.

An IOC audit of Anta Sports and Hengyuanxiang (HYX) Group, the results of which were released last month, found that apparel produced by both suppliers did not include "forced, bonded, indentured or child labour".

Bennett Freeman, a member of the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region Steering Committee, insisted he was "not reassured at all" by the audit of suppliers, saying in a joint statement with Human Rights Watch that there were "significant gaps" in the examination of both suppliers.

These included "inadequate transparency of audit results and lack of analysis of suppliers’ responsible sourcing practices", and a failure to detail how it assessed whether Anta Sports and HYX Group were "complicit in human rights abuses across their broader business".

The IOC said Anta Sports’ uniforms did not use cotton, although the company is known to source some of its cotton from Xinjiang, while HYX Group’s use of the material did not originate from China.

Allegations of human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang marred the build-up to the Winter Olympics, with some activists accusing China of committing "genocide" and being unfit to host the Games.

In Xinjiang, China has faced accusations of using forced Uyghur labour, operating a mass surveillance programme, detaining more than one million people in internment camps, carrying out forced sterilisations and intentionally destroying Uyghur heritage in the Xinjiang region.

Beijing has consistently denied the charges laid against it, and claims the camps are training centres designed to stamp out Islamist extremism and separatism.

The IOC has not escaped criticism for its handling of the controversies.

Both groups said they had written to the organisation on January 31 requesting further information on the audit, but had not received a reply.

Human Rights Watch's director of global initiatives Minky Worden said: "While there is increased transparency, the IOC did not provide credible assurance that it isn’t sourcing products linked to forced labour and human rights abuses in the Uyghur region of China and elsewhere."

Allison Gill, a member of the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region's Steering Committee, accused the IOC of failing to conduct sufficient due diligence.

Human Rights Watch and the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region alleged
Human Rights Watch and the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region alleged "significant gaps" in the IOC's audit of Anta Sports and HYX Group ©Getty Images

"In ignoring the significant risk of Uyghur forced labour in Olympic merchandise, the IOC shamefully put profits and political expediency over people and principles," Gill said.

The IOC defended its approach to the audit.

"We disagree with the HRW statement that we were not transparent with our audit results or failed to provide sufficient details," it told insidethegames.

It cited a public report entitled the IOC's Responsible Sourcing Approach, which it said contained "detailed information about our audit methodology (including our focus on worker engagement, audit length and auditing techniques to unearth sensitive issues), audit results broken down by specific clause and how our work is aligned with international standards, including the UNGPs [United Nations’ Guiding Principles]."

The IOC added that "none of our production took place in Xinjiang, nor that input / raw materials come from that region", with materials used in its Anta Sports uniforms "made of recycled materials, which have been third-party certified according to the Global Recycle Standard".

"To make it clear, none of the materials used in our Anta sport uniforms contain cotton, only recycled polyester, nylon, acrylic etc." it told insidethegames.

"With regards to our other partner, HYX produces high quality suits and pays special attention to the quality of its raw materials, sourcing materials from around the world, from wool to leather and indeed cotton.  

"We have received the records of provenance provided by their international trading company. 

"This shows that the cotton comes from outside of China."

The IOC also insisted that its audit was in line with established international practice.

"With regards to the names of the audit firms, we indeed do not disclose their names," it commented.

"The independent third party audit firms we retained are professional global social audit and monitoring companies that have in-depth knowledge and experience of the apparel manufacturing sector as well as the markets where we are sourcing our products from. 

"We do not disclose their names to ensure the continued integrity of their work.  

"This is aligned with international practice. 

"Our report provides information on our tier one suppliers and the level of compliance with our IOC Supplier Code.  

"In terms of the manufacturing facilities that were used to produce our uniforms, as stated in our public report, there was no forced, bonded, indentured or child labour. 

"The level of disclosure and details provided again is aligned with international practice."

Former US deputy assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labour Bennett Freeman argued
Former US deputy assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labour Bennett Freeman argued "the global outrage that the Beijing Olympics will generate may yet disrupt the IOC enough to force its fundamental reform" ©Getty Images

However, speaking to insidethegames, former United States deputy assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labour Freeman revealed that he is sceptical of the findings, questioning the timing and the level of detail of the audit.

"I was not reassured at all," he said.

"First of all, the disclosure of the findings was very late, they should have undertaken this work and released the findings much earlier, but that's hardly the most important point, there's some more fundamental points here.

"The more fundamental points are that only looked at two suppliers.

"Of course both Anta Sports and HYX Group are very significant, but they’re hardly the only suppliers in just the apparel dimension of Olympic branded merchandise, let alone the whole other range of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of the wider Olympic-branded merchandise.

"So they picked two significant suppliers, but nonetheless, they’ve only really shown us the tip of the iceberg, so the scope was very narrow here.

"So that's a real problem."

He also expressed concerns over what he perceived as a lack of transparency in how practical difficulties associated with the audit were overcome.

"Another problem is that they did not disclose the specific methodology that was applied by the independent third-party auditor," Freeman said.

"Instead they had a link to their global generic methodology for due diligence, which is fine as far as it goes, but we all know that there are unique circumstances by definition everywhere, but especially constrained circumstances that would face any independent third-party auditor trying to look at China in general or the Xinjiang Uyghur region in particular.

"So there was no disclosure of the specific methodology, nor was there an adequate explanation for how they would be able to interview workers without those workers fearing reprisals from whomever, whether employers, local party, or Government.

"Those issues of workers being interviewed in ways that give them some safety and protection are not unique to China or to Xinjiang, they're pretty global, but they're particularly severe constraints in a China context in general, in a Xinjiang context in particular."

The coalition contacted the IOC last year seeking a "dialogue" centred around the issues of ensuring Olympic merchandise is not made with forced labour and on the ability of athletes and broadcasters to discuss human rights.

Correspondence seen by insidethegames shows that negotiations on terms for which a discussion shared between the two parties broke down in December, with the IOC citing "differences in approach, including regarding scope, process and confidentiality".

Freeman added that he believed consultation with the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region would have been a logical step that could have strengthened the audit, in line with the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are due to conclude on February 20 ©Getty Images
The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are due to conclude on February 20 ©Getty Images

"The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights clearly establish that due diligence, whether it's supply chains or other labour human rights risks in company operations need to be informed by stakeholder engagement," he insisted.

"And indeed that was the primary objective of the dialogue that I sought with the IOC on behalf of the coalition that they in turn rejected.

"I wanted a dialogue, they wanted a 'one-way' active listening session where we would do all the talking and they would do the listening, and taking notes.

"We wanted it both ways, we wanted to listen and take notes and hear from them."

The coalition, Freeman claimed, could have helped "partly to inform the scope, focus and conduct of the independent third party auditor".

He has previously accused the IOC of "arrogance and intransigence" in its dealings with the coalition, and argued "the global outrage that the Beijing Olympics will generate may yet disrupt the IOC enough to force its fundamental reform".

The IOC has defended its approach, telling the New York Times last month that its offers of terms for "a constructive engagement" with the coalition were declined.

"It is our policy that the IOC hears all concerns that are directly related to the Olympic Games."

It added: "While generic concerns have been expressed in the past about Beijing 2022’s product sourcing, the IOC has not been approached about any specific case or situation, including by the coalition."

From Paris 2024, it will require cities staging the Olympics to "protect and respect human rights and ensure any violation of human rights is remedied in a manner consistent with international agreements, laws and regulations applicable in the host country and in a manner consistent with all internationally recognised human rights standards and principles".

The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are due to conclude on Sunday (February 20).