Leading fashion retailers, including John Lewis, M&S, New Look, Next, River Island and Shop Direct, have all signed up to a joint agreement with enforcement bodies to eradicate modern slavery from the UK textiles industry.
The Apparel and General Merchandise Public and Private Protocol commits its signatories to work together to eradicate slavery and exploitation in fashion and textile supply chains. They have pledged to raise awareness to prevent worker exploitation, protect vulnerable and exploited workers and disrupt exploitative practices and help bring criminals to justice.
Enforcement bodies including the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Employment Agency Standards inspectorate, Health and Safety Executive (HSE), HMRC, Immigration Enforcement and the Insolvency Service have also signed the document, which is supported by industry bodies British Retail Consortium (BRC), UK Fashion and Textile Association (UKFT), and auditing system Fast Forward.
Tens of thousands of workers are employed in the UK fashion industry, which contributes £32bn in GDP to the UK economy. Some of those workers are vulnerable to exploitation and the agreement seeks to reassure those workers that the industry is uniting to take a stand and protect them.
“It is disturbing to think that some of the products we buy could have been produced by someone exploited into forced labour.”
Theresa May, Prime Minister
Its creation comes after the latest meeting of the Modern Slavery Taskforce, which was created by Prime Minister Theresa May, who said: “Modern slavery is an abhorrent crime that denies its victims of liberty, and it is disturbing to think that some of the products we buy could have been produced by someone exploited into forced labour.”
“As global leaders in the fight against modern slavery, I am clear that this will not be tolerated in the UK – and our consumers won’t stand for it either,” she added.
But she said the with Modern Slavery police operations “at an all time high” there was more to do to “stamp out this vile crime and prevent criminal groups from operating in the shadows of supply chains to exploit people for commercial gain.”
UKFT CEO Adam Mansell said the organisation was working with industry to tackle the issue and he also urged consumers to take a stand and also to appreciate that fashion prices cannot continue to be reduced without cost to the workers concerned.
“As the costs of raw materials and labour increase, the consumer will need to accept that it will not be possible to continually reduce prices – wherever the goods are made.”
Adam Mansell, CEO, UKFT
“Through initiatives such as the protocol, UKFT is committed to working with manufacturers to help ensure that their employment practices, welfare standards and quality assurance procedures are higher than those required by law. A long term, equitable relationship between retailers and manufacturers will help the UK fashion and textile manufacturing sector grow and develop,” Mansell said.
“We also actively encourage consumers to think very carefully about how their fashion and textile products are made. As the costs of raw materials and labour increase, the consumer will need to accept that it will not be possible to continually reduce prices – wherever the goods are made,” he said.
GLAA Director of Operations Ian Waterfield said the size of the UK fashion industry and the number of workers concerned made it an attractive proposition for “unscrupulous employers and criminals”.
“The signing of this protocol is a significant step because it sends a clear message of intent from both the industry and law enforcement that exploiting people for their labour will not tolerated. The GLAA is the enemy of illegitimate working practices and criminality, and a friend to legitimate businesses targeted by those who commit exploitation,” Waterfield said.
Peter Andrews of BRC echoed the sentiment: “This is an important step in our collaborative efforts to end the ill treatment of any workers suffering under exploitative employers in UK fashion and textile factories. The responsible businesses signing up to this Protocol demonstrate that relationships with suppliers have to be based on decent working practices. Joint efforts by industry and government are essential if we are to truly eradicate these abhorrent practices.