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MPs and retailers write to Home Secretary calling for greater protection for garment workers

Lauretta Roberts
20 July 2020

More than 50 cross-party MPs and Peers and 40 retailers, investors and NGOs have written to Home Secretary Priti Patel to call for greater protection for garment workers.

The letter, which was co-ordinated by the British Retail Consortium, calls for licensing of garment factories to ensure they are meeting all legal requirements.

It follows on from a letter sent by Boohoo CEO John Lyttle, which was revealed on Saturday, calling for the same "Fit to Trade" licenses in which he stated he supported the move by the BRC.

Boohoo is not a member of the consortium but has been at the centre of a media storm around conditions in garment factories in Leicester. It was reported by The Sunday Times two weeks ago that workers at a factory where Boohoo and Nasty Gal garments were seen, were paid as little as £3.50 an hour.

The fast fashion retailer said the factory in question had not made the garments and the repackaging of them had been subcontracted without its knowledge. It has now appointed a QC to investigate its entire supply chain. 

In this latest letter, the BRC said the Fit to Trade scheme would:

  • Protect workers from forced labour, debt bondage and mistreatment, ensuring payment of National Minimum Wage, VAT, PAYE, National Insurance, holiday pay and health and safety; 
  • Create a level playing field for businesses to compete fairly and prevent rogue businesses from undercutting compliant manufacturers; and
  • Encourage retailers to source their clothing from the UK, supporting the development of an ethical, world-leading industry

As well as underpayment, there have been reports that workers in some Leicester factories were not provided with PPE and have been obliged to work in unsafe conditions during the COVID-19 outbreak. In the letter, the signatories warn that unless immediate action is taken, more workers will suffer exploitation.

Helen Dickinson CEO of the BRC said:"The BRC has repeatedly called on Government  to take action to prevent labour exploitation in the UK. Recent reports in the media demonstrate the urgent need for action before more workers are needlessly taken advantage of. While there is no silver bullet, licensing is a critical step toward resolving this issue. The public want to know that the clothes they buy have been made by workers who are respected, valued and protected by the law.

Our members continue to stand firm against labour exploitation, and we hope the Home Secretary joins us in the fight to build a more ethical and sustainable fashion industry.”

Dr Lisa Cameron MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Textiles & Fashion, which is supporting the move, added: “As we emerge from the coronavirus crisis, we have a huge opportunity to make the UK a world-leading, ethical fashion and textile manufacturing industry, delivering better, highly skilled  jobs. It is crucial the Home Secretary seriously considers the urgent need to implement statutory licensing of garment factory owners and managers to ensure they are ‘Fit to Trade’. There is vast support for this initiative, and we need to see urgent action to prevent thousands more people facing exploitation taking place is some garment factories in the UK.”

Retailers who added their name to the letter included ASOS, George at ASDA, Joules, Matalan, Missguided, Morrisons, Mountain Warehouse, N Brown, Next, River Island and the Very Group. The full text of the letter and a list of all of its signatories can be read here.

Over the weekend it also emerged that Boohoo had acquired a former car dealership in Leicester and had plans to turn the site into a high-tech garment making village in order to keep as much of its production in the UK as possible. Currently it sources around 40% of its product in the UK. Planning permission has not yet been granted for the project.

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