Licensing could prevent fashion worker exploitation, ministers told


Retailers, MPs, charities and campaign groups have urged the home secretary to take action on alleged worker exploitation in UK garment factories and create a licensing regime to ensure workers are protected.

Following claims that factories in Leicester that supply big fashion brands including Boohoo and Quiz were paying workers below the minimum wage and doing little to protect staff from Covid-19, a letter coordinated by the British Retail Consortium said “thousands more” workers could be exploited if the government did not take action.

“The public want to know that the clothes they buy have been made by workers who are respected, valued and protected by the law,” said Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium.

“Recent reports in the media demonstrate the urgent need for action before more workers are needlessly taken advantage of. While there is no silver bullet, licensing is a critical step toward resolving this issue.”

The letter – which was signed by major retailers including Asda, Next, M&S and Asos, as well as more than 50 MPs and peers, charities and investors – said little had been done about tackling poor working practices in the UK’s garment industry, despite the issue being raised by academic, retailers and MPs multiple times.

It urged home secretary Priti Patel to bring in a new statutory licensing regime for garment factories that would:

  • protect workers from forced labour, debt bondage and mistreatment
  • ensure health and safety is protected
  • ensure workers are paid the national minimum wage and holiday pay, as well as the payment of national insurance contributions and PAYE
  • encourage retailers to source their clothing from the UK
  • prevent rogue businesses from undercutting manufacturers that comply with UK employment law.

Earlier this month both Boohoo and Quiz said they would investigate claims that workers in suppliers’ factories in Leicester were being paid below the national minimum wage – some as little as £3.50 an hour.

An investigation by Sky News alleged that as many as 10,000 people could be working in exploitative conditions in textile factories in the city.

Boohoo said it would work “to ensure that everyone working to produce clothing in Leicester is properly remunerated, at least the national minimum wage, [and is] fairly treated and safe at work”.

It said it would immediately terminate the contracts it has with any supplier “found not to be acting within both the letter and spirit of our supplier code of conduct. This includes very clear expectations on transparency about second tier suppliers”.

Dr Lisa Cameron, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Textiles & Fashion, said: “As we emerge from the coronavirus crisis, we have a huge opportunity to make the UK a world-leading, ethical fashion and textile manufacturing industry, delivering better, highly-skilled jobs.

“It is crucial the home secretary seriously considers the urgent need to implement statutory licensing of garment factory owners and managers to ensure they are ‘Fit to Trade’. There is vast support for this initiative, and we need to see urgent action to prevent thousands more people facing exploitation taking place is some garment factories in the UK.”

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