The government and industry are being urged to issue a “hard-hitting and uncompromising response” to low wages and poor working conditions at UK garment manufacturing firms in Leicester, which supply major fashion retailers.
Channel 4 Dispatches: Britain’s Cheap Clothes
The sector has come under scrutiny from a Channel 4 Dispatches investigation, which alleges that some UK workers in some sub-contracted factories are being paid less than half the national living wage and are being exposed to conditions that pose a serious fire risk.
Factories implicated in the programme, including Fashion Square and United Creations, were producing clothes for New Look, River Island, Boohoo and Missguided.
New Look, River Island and Boohoo said the factories in question had been delisted because they failed to meet the standards expected. Suppliers were told not to subcontract further orders to the factories, but the instructions were allegedly ignored, in breach of contract.
The situation is so grave in Leicester – responsible retailers must consider how they conduct their business in the city
ETI spokeswoman Debbie Coulter
Boohoo emphasised that the factory it was linked to was not a direct supplier. The etailer said it was not aware the factory was being used, but it has since visited to go through its standards. Missguided has suspended production with the factory with immediate effect and said it is ”committed to finding a resolution to these concerns with the best interests of the workers as a priority”.
River Island and New Look are both members of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), which is calling for agencies including the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), the Health and Safety Executive, HM Revenue and Customs, politicians and others to act.
“The full force of the law should be applied,” said ETI spokeswoman Debbie Coulter. “Some local factory owners are preying on vulnerable groups, including South Asian women with limited English or undocumented migrant workers.”
However she said retailers must also address transparency issues and is urging its members to consider imposing significant sanctions against factories that breach contracts.
“The situation is so grave in Leicester – with wages hardly wages at all, and sometimes appalling health and safety violations – that responsible retailers must now consider how they conduct their business in the city,” said Coulter.
ETI is calling on retailers to address costing strategies, including ring-fencing labour costs. It wants them to work more with trade unions, as it believes a unionised workforce will result in better working conditions and a safer environment.
It also said audits must be fit for purpose, the right questions must be asked by experienced auditors, workers must be engaged and there must be collaboration across the sector.
“Leicester is important,” she confirmed. ”It is a major part of the re-emergence of UK garment manufacturing. We know there are good business practices within some parts of the sector, but very low wages and poor working conditions remain, are completely unacceptable and must be addressed.”