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Dewhirst could sue union in Morocco factory dispute

Marks & Spencer supplier Dewhirst may sue the trade union at the centre of a dispute at its factory in Tangiers, Morocco, for alleged defamation.

Dewhirst womenswear managing director Anthony Woods said he was considering suing the Union Nationale du Travail au Maroc (UNTM) for libel or slander following allegations made during the dispute.

He claimed the union had yet to provide evidence of the allegations. The union said 486 workers out of a workforce of 1,050 were sacked last December after Dewhirst rejected a collective agreement with the UNTM. The resulting dispute led to sit-ins and picketing at the factory.

The UNTM has enlisted UK union the GMB to raise awareness of the dispute. The GMB, as well as campaign groups Labour Behind the Label and No Sweat, said it would protest at M&S's London HQ if no progress was made (Drapers, April 7).

In a written statement, Dewhirst said it "had not heard from" the workers concerned after they withdrew their labour. It added: "The vast majority of personnel who withdrew their labour have effectively resigned, as we have not heard from them despite verbal and written invitations to return to work. Thus they are not sacked but in fact abandoned their post under Moroccan law."

It added that workers were represented through a workers' council, and that they enjoy substantial rights, including healthcare, transport to and from work, 24 days' paid holiday a year and a canteen. Woods also pointed to an article in the local Moroccan press suggesting the strikes were politically inspired and targeted Western-based companies.

But UNTM international affairs officer Yassir Yaghfouri said the workers had been locked out of the factory, and should be reinstated or compensated.

Representatives from M&S and Dewhirst visited the factories in Morocco two weeks ago, with a board member of the Ethical Trading Initiative as an observer, and it is understood a report is being put together by M&S.

Dewhirst closed the last of its UK production in 2002, with much of it moving to Morocco. It had five factories in the country but now has just two, after moving production on to countries in Asia.

An M&S spokeswoman said it was "continuing to investigate the matter."

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