Retailers call for licensing scheme to protect garment factory workers

20 Jul 2020 By Francis Churchill

Open letter to home secretary says labourers need better safeguarding from exploitation and unsafe conditions in light of alleged abuses at Leicester manufacturers

Retailers and MPs have written to the government calling for the introduction of a licensing scheme for garment factories in the wake of mounting evidence of unethical employment practices in Leicester.

The letter, signed by Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, outlined a plan for statutory licensing of garment factories and owners that would, at a minimum, protect workers from forced labour and debt bondage, and unsafe working conditions, and ensure the payment of the national minimum wage, national insurance contributions and holiday pay.

It comes in response to reports that garment factories in Leicester, allegedly supplying online fashion retailer boohoo and others, were paying workers as little as £3.50 and hour – far below the minimum wage – and forcing employees to work in unsafe conditions and without PPE despite the risk of coronavirus. Leicester was one of the coronavirus hotspots earlier this month, and was the first area to be subjected to a ‘local lockdown’, which is only due to start easing from 24 July.

Earlier this month boohoo said it would investigate one of its suppliers in Leicester after a Sunday Times investigation found that workers there were being paid well below the minimum wage, and that there was little evidence of measures to stop the spread of coronavirus.

The investigation was just the latest in a string of reports going back a number of years, suggesting widespread labour abuse in the garment manufacturing sector in the city.

In the open letter, addressed to home secretary Priti Patel, the signatories said: “A concerning number of garment workers in key hubs in the UK, such as Leicester, have continued to work in factories throughout lockdown without adequate PPE or social distancing measures in place.”

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It added that the recent reports about conditions in Leicester “added weight to concerns” raised by academics and parliamentary committees over the last five years, including “gross underpayment of the national living wage and serious breaches of health and safety law in these workplaces”.

“Unless action is taken now, thousands more people will likely face exploitation,” it said.

The letter was also signed by 50 MPs from across parties, including Lisa Cameron, SNP MP and chair of the all-party parliamentary group for textiles and fashion, and by a number of NGOs and investors businesses including Marks and Spencer, Asos and Morrisons.

Commenting on the letter, Cameron said the UK’s emergence from the coronavirus crisis created a “huge opportunity” to make the UK a world leader in ethical fashion and textile manufacturing, delivering better, highly skilled jobs. But, she said, statutory licensing of factory owners and managers was crucial in making this happen.

“There is vast support for this initiative, and we need to see urgent action to prevent thousands more people facing exploitation taking place in some garment factories in the UK,” Cameron added.

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