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Image: H&M

A report from a Swedish newspaper has prompted Sweden’s Equality Ombudsman to initiate a probe into reported discrimination being carried out by H&M. Reuters reported on Wednesday that the country’s Equality Ombudsman – the government agency tasked with “combatting discrimination on grounds of sex, transgender identity or expression, ethnic origin, religion or other belief, disability, sexual orientation or age” – has confirmed that it is investigating the fast fashion giant after Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet published footage that appeared to show an H&M sales associate discriminating against a customer on the basis of race. 

Aftonbladet published a report in November that “included footage from a hidden camera depicting what the paper said showed a woman with a foreign background being denied an exchange of purchased items without a receipt,” according to Reuters. At the same time, “a Swedish-born reporter from the daily was allowed to do so.” Bloomberg further noted on Wednesday that Aftonbladet’s own investigation found that “about 10 former and current employees at H&M stores in Sweden said they were aware of instances in which ethnic consumers were put at a disadvantage when they tried to exchange goods.”

Bloomberg states that this is not the first time H&M has been accused of racial discrimination: “In August, the retailer suspended several employees after a hat sold at its stores was given an internal product name that contained a racist slur.”

The Equality Ombudsman revealed on Wednesday that after learning of the Aftonbladet’s report, it has “decided to initiate an inspection of H&M” in order to address “claims that the company treats people with an ethnic affiliation other than Swedish and disadvantages them, among other things, by demanding a receipt when changing goods in violation of the company’s policy.” 

“The purpose of the inspection is to clarify whether there has been a violation of the prohibition of discrimination for which the company is responsible,” the agency asserted. Meanwhile, a representative for H&M told Reuters in response to the Equality Ombudsman’s newly-launch probe, “It is a matter of course that all customers be treated equally and we take this type of accusations very seriously.” 

Reuters notes that the Equality Ombudsman “does not have the authority to impose sanctions,” but may file a formal discrimination case should it find that H&M has run afoul of Sweden’s Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of or that “is associated with” the protected grounds, namely, sex, transgender identity or expression, ethnicity (specifically, “national or ethnic origin, skin colour or any similar circumstance”), religion or other belief, disability, sexual orientation or age. (It is worth noting that the European Convention on Human Rights also contains provisions whereby discrimination is prohibited, including on the basis of “sex, race, ethnic origin, religion or conviction, functional impairment, age or sexual orientation.”)

According to a 2017 “comparative analysis of non-discrimination law in Europe” from the European Commission, damages for violations of non-discrimination legislation in Sweden “generally range between EUR 1,700 and EUR 13,000, depending on the circumstances.”

Should a monetary penalty ultimately be levied on H&M in the matter at hand, it will follow from a recent “record breaking” sanction for the retailer. Stockholm-headquartered H&M Group, which generated $27.4 billion in revenue in 2019 across its various brands, including H&M, COS, & Other Stories, and Arket, among others, recently was slapped with a $41.5 million fine in connection with its pattern of illegally surveilling employees in Germany. 

According to an October decision from the Hamburg Data Protection Commission, the Swedish fast fashion behemoth was found to be monitoring several hundred employees at its service center in Nuremberg, with some of the employees being subject to extensive recording of information related to their private lives since at least 2014, all of which was uncovered in conjunction with a security breach that took place a year ago. 

“After absences, such as vacations and sick leave, [H&M’s] supervising team leaders conducted so-called ‘Welcome Back Talks’ with their employees,” according to the Hamburg Data Protection Commission’s decision, which was handed down on October 1. “After these talks, in many cases not only the employees’ concrete vacation experiences were recorded” by H&M’s senior staff, the Data Protection Commission stated, “but also symptoms of illness and diagnoses.”  

Given the seriousness of the offense, the fine – which is the highest penalty to be ordered in Germany under the GDPR since its implementation in May 2018, per Forbes, and the second highest in the whole of the European Union (Google was fined €50 million by French regulators in 2019) – “is adequate and effective to deter companies from violating the privacy of their employees,” according to Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection Prof. Dr. Johannes Caspar. 

H&M’s formal response to the Equality Ombudsman’s probe is due on December 22.