The working conditions in overseas factories used by British fashion firms were scrutinised this week, as senior figures from Next, Asos, Marks & Spencer and Mulberry gave evidence to parliament’s joint committee on human rights.
Asos CEO Nick Beighton
It comes three months after an undercover investigation by the BBC’s Panorama programme found that some factories in Turkey had been employing refugees from Syria – including, in some cases, children – to produce clothing sold by UK retailers including Asos and M&S.
The four retailers giving evidence have global supply chains, which stretch from the UK to Cambodia and Bangladesh.
The manager of Next’s global code of practice, Chris Grayer, said the retailer uncovered eight isolated cases of children working in its overseas factories last year.
But he said each incident involved one or two children rather than several, and they were generally working to earn some extra “pocket money”. “We need to differentiate between that and systemic abuse of children,” he argued.
Asos chief executive Nick Beighton pointed out that one of the highest risks occurs when suppliers use unauthorised subcontractors. “That’s what happened in Turkey,” he explained, referring to the Panorama programme. “Sometimes you have done all the right things, but the factories have different values.”
Committee chair and Labour MP Harriet Harman asked what action fashion retailers take if abuses are uncovered. In response, Beighton said they could terminate the contract with the supplier.
However, both he and fellow witness Mike Barry, who is director of sustainable business at M&S, argued that it was important to first try and work with suppliers to solve any issues.
Often one of the worst things you can do is cut and run
Mike Barry, M&S
“You start off with very clear terms and conditions, and make it clear that if there’s any unauthorised subcontracting there are consequences,” said Beighton. ”If [there’s a breach and] it’s an aberration you say, come on guys let’s work together on this one. If it’s a cultural, systemic bending of the rules, we will suspend doing business with them.”
Mike Barry, M&S
Harman asked why retailers carried on working with suppliers that had breached contracts, to which Beighton explained in situations like Turkey, where the supply chain has been stressed by the influx of Syrian refugees, it is better to remind suppliers of their obligations.”
Barry agreed: “Often one of the worst things you can do is cut and run. It’s very tempting when there’s a problem and it’s in the press to say, our brand’s at risk, let’s just get away from it. But that supplier will go off and peddle their goods to someone else.
“Occasionally you come up against a supplier who refuses to put things right, at that point you give up and go. But I think you have an obligation as a responsible business to try and put things right.”
The MPs also sought to determine whether overseas workers have the right to trade union representation and if there is an opportunity for workers to whistleblow.
Harman asked if contracts should contain a clause guaranteeing workers access to an independent union. Beighton said he had been considering this and would think about it in more detail.
“We encourage [unions] as well as terms and conditions and audits, it gives more eyes on the ground to provide more assurances,” he added.
Barry said 97% of M&S’s suppliers have access to either a work committee or independent trade union and explained that while a trade union is preferable, it can be more difficult.
“We’re running a trial in India where 20,000 workers can use their phone to answer questions to give their own voice,” he said. “There is no magic bullet for this, there are several solutions.”
Barry and Beighton both agreed that China was the most complicated locations for working with trade unions.