By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, July 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Reports of labour exploitation at British garment factories that supply to online fast fashion retailer Boohoo have sparked debate about the role of brands and the government in protecting workers from wage theft, abuse, and modern slavery.
The company has commissioned an independent review of its supply chain in Britain following media and campaigner reports that some of its suppliers in Leicester, central England, underpaid workers and failed to protect them from COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected some 60 million garment workers worldwide. From Bangladesh to Cambodia, many have been denied pay or fired as top retailers pulled orders or demanded discounts with shuttered stores and falling sales.
Yet fashion experts and insiders say exploitation of textile workers in Britain has gone unaddressed despite many exposes in recent years and a parliamentary probe into the issue in 2019.
Britain's National Crime Agency and several partners in policing and government said they were inspecting several businesses in Leicester to assess concerns of modern slavery.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation asked activists, academics, and officials how Britain could stop brands from exploiting workers in the garment industry both at home and abroad.
Meg Lewis, Campaigns Manager at Labour Behind the Label
It should no longer be acceptable for brands to distance themselves from the conditions in which their clothes are made.
In 2015, it was estimated that underpaid wages and wage theft in Leicester amounted to about £1 million ($1.26 million) per week. Without a serious effort at remediation we cannot move forward.
Poverty, structural racism, and hostile (immigration) environment policies all push people into exploitative working conditions and prevent them from seeking help or support, compounding vulnerabilities.
We will be expecting the government to agree to a wide-ranging investigation and action plan that will enable long-lasting change in the garment industry.
Sara Thornton, UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner
The exposure of exploitation and unsafe working conditions in Leicester's fast fashion sweatshops has shocked the nation but sadly is not new to many in the modern slavery sector.
Previous efforts to chip away at this issue have not worked — we urgently need to understand the evidence on the ground.
Companies who don't pay their staff the minimum wage will not care about their health and well-being, and the whole spectrum of abuse of workers' rights, right through to labour exploitation and slavery-like practices, is unacceptable.
We need to take a multi-agency approach to investigate these crimes, but coupled with the support of workers and potential victims of exploitation. How do we support workers to understand their rights and in whistle-blowing?
2/2 “Retailers have a responsibility - they need to go beyond superficial #modernslavery statements - and the very best companies focus on the human rights of their staff. But how can we factor in the true cost of labour?”— Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner (@UKAntiSlavery) July 6, 2020
Thulsi Narayanasamy, Senior Labour Rights Researcher at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre
The exploitation of garment workers in Leicester has been repeatedly brought to the attention of the British government who rejected all recommendations on how to address this after the parliamentary hearings in 2018.
Clothes are being produced more cheaply than they could be in Bangladesh because brands have pushed down prices with factories that are unable to say no for fear of losing orders.
When brands pay a pittance to produce the clothes, suppliers cut corners to stay afloat; they're systematically incentivised to exploit workers for the business model to work.
Introducing mandatory laws that hold companies to account for conducting human rights due diligence across their supply chain — including paying a living wage — is the first step towards ensuring that everyone has their basic rights respected and protected at work.
Emily Kenway, Senior Policy Adviser at Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX)
Single companies taking action won't suffice. We need the government to step in and ensure all our products have been made under legal and decent conditions.
Government must empower workers and regulate businesses.
It's time we introduced requirements on firms to have decent purchasing practices, such as long enough order timeframes to ensure excessive overtime won't be pushed onto workers while guaranteeing the people making their goods get living wages.
The government must also properly fund labour inspectors and ensure their work is entirely separated from immigration enforcement — this will mean all workers can report harm easily and without fear of their status barring access to justice.
"Single companies taking action won't suffice. We need the gvt to step in and ensure all our products have been made under legal and decent conditions. Gvt must empower workers and regulate businesses", our @emilykenway on what's needed to prevent #exploitation in #supply chains. https://t.co/N1D0Hdk7sN— FLEX (@FocusOnLabour) July 8, 2020
Alexander Trautrims, Associate Professor in Supply Chain & Operations Management at Nottingham University Business School
It is very unlikely for a garment manufacturer in Britain to be inspected by enforcement authorities and COVID-19 has further reduced the already insufficient inspection capacity.
COVID-19 has suddenly turned the well-documented issue of labour exploitation in Leicester's garment industry into a public health issue, which made it un-ignorable for politicians, enforcement bodies, and corporations.
The number of labour inspectors in Britain is much lower than in comparable economies and the risk of effective inspection is clearly too low for businesses that are willing to undercut standards.
Another question is whether Boohoo will be held responsible for remediation and will pay compensation for the victim workers in its supply chain.
Want to learn even more? Feel free to listen to Episode 3 of Series 3 where we talk to Dr Alexander Trautrims of @UniofNottingham on how to develop and implement measures to ensure that supply chains are free from #ModernSlavery: https://t.co/FJajCSvPFfhttps://t.co/07OhwnXSWh— The Rights Track (@RightsTrack) March 22, 2018
Joanna Ewart-James, Executive Director at Freedom United
We need consistency in the message that profit cannot be at the expense of people.
This must be backed up by effective policies to protect workers, regulations on business practice, and enforcement by local and national government and its agencies.
These measures must be developed collectively with stakeholders including suppliers, retailers, trade unions, community and worker rights groups to ensure their efficacy.
Financial results alone should not be the measure of business success. Consumers should have confidence in widely accepted standards that aim to protect people from exploitation, at worst, conditions synonymous with modern slavery.
(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)