By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, Nov 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Major British retailers including Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, and Next are joining forces with law enforcement agencies in a bid to eradicate labour exploitation and modern slavery from the fashion industry, Britain's anti-slavery body said on Tuesday.
Six of the country's top fashion brands have vowed to raise awareness to stop worker abuses, protect at-risk and exploited employees, and root out modern slavery from their supply chains, according to the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA).
Companies face growing scrutiny in Britain and beyond to ensure their operations are slave-free as rising demand for cheap clothing fuels labour exploitation in factories worldwide.
"Tens of thousands of people are employed in the textiles industry in the UK and it contributes billions of pounds to the economy," said Ian Waterfield, head of operations at the GLAA.
"That alone makes it an attractive proposition for unscrupulous employers and criminals who exploit workers."
About 25 million people are estimated to be trapped in forced labour worldwide, according to the United Nations.
The global fashion industry has come under pressure to change since more than 1,100 garment workers were killed in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh five years ago.
Yet big brands have been criticized for failing to improve conditions in their supply chains — from fields to factories — and allowing or turning a blind eye to abuses such as excessive working hours, child labour and bans on forming trade unions.
None of the six brands — which also include New Look, River Island and Shop Direct — responded to requests for comment about the partnership, but the British Retail Consortium (BRC) trade association called it an "important step" to end worker abuses.
The agreement is being backed by Britain's labour inspectorate, tax authority and health and safety and immigration officials, as well as several industry bodies.
Anti-Slavery International welcomed the commitment of the major brands but said the deal highlighted the gaps in Britain's landmark anti-slavery legislation, which came into law in 2015.
Britain's Modern Slavery Act requires firms with a turnover of £36 million ($46 million) to file an annual statement outlining their anti-slavery efforts. Yet compliance is low as there are no penalties for offenders, according to activists.
"Proactive identification and eradication of exploitative practices shouldn't be a voluntary act but a standard practice sanctioned by the law," said Klara Skrivankova, UK and Europe manager for charity Anti-Slavery International.
"Only then the businesses that do their part in ending slavery wouldn't be undercut by those which profit from exploitation," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Leading fashion designers, entrepreneurs and campaigners will be questioned by lawmakers on Tuesday as part of an ongoing state inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry.
(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert; editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)