In response to ongoing reports of abusive conditions in the Leicester garment Industry, and the Government’s recent announcement of a cross-government task force, Labour Behind the Label, along with key stakeholders has issued the following public letter to the Rt Hon Priti Patel, Secretary of State for the Home Department; Rt Hon Alok Sharma, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Rt Hon Boris Johnson, Prime Minister.
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Recommendations for a short-term and long-term solutions
The current model of fast fashion and the current pricing structure of brands like Boohoo as well as other prominent brands means that sub-contracting, underpayment of wages, and illegal and insecure employment conditions are the norm for garment factories. Indeed, industry sources state that it is impossible to produce the units/garments requested by fast fashion brands for the product price while paying workers the national minimum wage in the UK.
The UK government needs to ensure that companies comply with their responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and cannot simply refer to unworkable codes of conduct, shifting responsibility onto suppliers. Companies must investigate and remediate abuses within their supply chain and halt business practices which encourage a cheap and disposable workforce.
Procurement practices and their impact must be examined and a commitment to labour rights and positive change must be embedded in supply chains including through protective and clear legislation. Government agencies must work together to address the situation holistically and urgently in Leicester. This approach must include local stakeholders, unions, and local authorities, as well as the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the Health & Safety Executive, and others. It must be clear that the focus is on protection of workers and that immigration enforcement will not be involved in nor receive information or data from this work.
Remediation and urgent action
- The government and relevant enforcement agencies must ensure that all factories are operating safely. All production sites in Leicester must be urgently investigated. Workers, regardless of employment status, must be paid their wages and any furlough pay while any units are suspended.
- The government must ensure that past and current wages owed to workers in the Leicester garment industry are paid. A report from 2015 by the Ethical Trade Initiative and the University of Leicester calculated that the scale of wage fraud in the Leicester textile industry was around £1 million a week. This resulted in an estimated £50 million a year lost in underpaid wages.
- Health & Safety Executive (HSE) inspections in all Leicester garment factories must be undertaken to uncover unsafe working conditions. Indeed, the HSE must restart proactive inspections in all UK industries and occupations. The UK government must ensure that there is mandatory regulation of safeguards for ensuring Covid19 safety measures which include penalties for businesses that fail to comply.
Labour Enforcement, regulation, and monitoring
Relevant authorities, including BEIS, the Home Office, local authorities, the Gangmasters Licensing & Abuse Authority (GLAA) and HSE must come together to work on long term solutions, which may include:
- Creating a dedicated and effective helpline in Leicester for workers with fast track furlough/full pay support and advice on employment rights and options.
- Introducing statutory licensing or oversight mechanisms to protect workers from wage theft, illegal working conditions, labour rights abuses and ensure proper enforcement of UK laws regarding minimum wages, holiday and sick pay, tax, and pensions.
- Investing considerable resources in strengthening enforcement of UK employment law, for example, substantially increasing the numbers of inspectors employed by the different agencies, so that they are able to mount unannounced inspections and follow up on anonymous reports.
- Build upon the Institute for Employment Rights’ Manifesto for Labour Law, initiate proper dialogue involving trade unions, community organisations, local councils, public welfare and employment agencies to engage in remedial actions to tackle in-work poverty, and to develop outreach and support for vulnerable workers.
Government action to regulate brand/retailers’ practices
- The government must ensure that brands and retailers are responsible for their part in placing orders in unsafe factories, as well as purchasing in a manner which leads inevitably to precarious employment, and workers having no social safety net.
- The government must ensure that garment brands and companies drastically change their business practice to ensure that their pricing enables, as a minimum, the payment of the minimum wage and progression towards a living wage.
- Establish a Garment Fair Purchasing regulator, with dissuasive sanctions, and own-initiative investigation powers to curb unlawful practices by UK retailers. A regulator in the fashion sector would complement the role that the Groceries Code Adjudicator successfully fulfils as a watchdog overseeing UK food retailers’ practices towards suppliers.
- The government must make it compulsory that companies publicly disclose a full list of supplier facilities, at least on an annual basis. Data should include, at minimum, names of all authorised supplier facilities at all levels, site addresses, parent companies, types of products made and number of workers and wage levels. The data must be accessible in a searchable format. This is now the norm for most retailers in the UK who have indicated a commitment to upholding workers’ rights in their supply chains.
Legislation on Business and Human Rights Due Diligence
Legislation must be introduced that provides penalties and sanctions for non-compliance, with compensation for workers, and includes mandatory supply chain transparency across the industry to increase brands’ accountability and the introduction of joint responsibility provisions, including the UK supply chain and overseas.
- Introduce a corporate duty to prevent negative human rights and environmental impacts, mandating commercial organisations to conduct due diligence to identify, prevent, mitigate, and account for adverse impacts of their operations, subsidiaries, and value chains. This must include access to living wages. Consult on effectiveness of criminal liability for non-compliance.
- Authorities must enable and empower overseas workers who are victims of corporate harm in the supply chain of UK brands to access remedy via UK courts. This should include removing financial barriers that prevent victims from bringing cases to court. UK retailers’ practices towards their suppliers needs to respect human rights irrespective of where workers in the supply chain are located. Otherwise the least protected workers in UK garment supply chains will be exploited, undermining UK’s business reputation.
Migrant workers and Modern Slavery
- The government should immediately suspend the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds” conditions on public health grounds at least for the duration of Covid-19, as recommended by the Work and Pensions Select Committee.
- Migrant workers are vulnerable to exploitation and need support to raise their concerns, irrespective of their immigration status. In this context, there must be a separation of immigration enforcement from labour inspection. In addition, the government should make additional investment in local community organisations and advice agencies, including adequate accessible provision for those who do not speak English. The current approach criminalises workers and allows those perpetrating illegal practices to use the state to stop workers whistleblowing or exercising rights.
- Instead of the threat of deportation which empowers employers to threaten workers, workers should be offered a leave-to-remain guarantee (period to be determined) in exchange for reporting illegal working practices.
- Implement recommendations from the (May 2019) review of the Modern Slavery Act, including: an independent anti-slavery commissioner, independent child trafficking advocates, improved provision for victims, criminal sanctions and penalties for non-compliance, enlargement of the act to smaller companies and UK government bodies.
- Migrant worker groups must be consulted and included in resolving migrant labour issues.