Stronger, wider-reaching regulation and more effective enforcement is needed to eradicate unscrupulous practices in the UK garment industry, suppliers have told Drapers following Monday’s Dispatches investigation.
The Channel 4 programme showed that some sub-contracted factories making clothes for major retailers pay workers less than half the national living wage. It also suggested working conditions in some of the factories posed a fire risk.
Suppliers not implicated in the programme, who pride themselves on high standards and ethical practice, told Drapers they were deeply disappointed by the claims.
Mick Cheema, general manager of Leicester-based supplier Basic Premier, which works with firms including New Look and River Island, said the problem was “endemic” in Leicester.
He believes it is time for the authorities such as Revenue and Customs and Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), as well as city councils, to crack down: “They have known what’s going since the last ETI report in 2015. Now they need to act on it in a big way.”
He said retailers have made great strides over the last few years to eradicate problems in their supply chains by introducing initiatives such as the Fast Forward audit, a collaborative initiative to build legal and ethical labour standards compliance in the supply base for UK manufacturers.
“At the end of the day the retailers have done their due diligence, they can only take face value what someone has told them – they rely on suppliers to do what they are saying,” he said. “There are rules and regulations to abide by in the UK and you can’t police everyone.”
He suggested a big publicity campaign in various languages with a helpline to allow workers to report anomalies. “The problem is that no-one talks about it, it’s just pushed under the carpet.”
Justin Hall, managing director of Leicester-based sock manufacturer and brand Pantherella, agreed that the laws facing firms flouting the rules need to be stronger and that individuals held responsible should be properly penalised.
“The issue is that we can get tarred by the same brush because we are in the same city, when in reality it is nothing like,” he said. ”For other firms that operate well, the worry is that major retailers decide they don’t want to take the risk of a scandal again.”
Jenny Holloway, chief executive of supplier Fashion Enter in north London, argued that the suppliers themselves need to be held to account.
“The retailers are actually very stringent on their supplier set-ups and compliance but it’s the suppliers who then subcontract out,” she said. “When is the supplier going to step up and take responsibility? You can’t keep placing the blame on retailers.”
But Ian Maclean, managing director of Derbyshire knitwear firm John Smedley, suggested retailers have a certain responsibility to protect their reputations.
“It seems like failures on both sides, some people not abiding by the rules and others not checking what it is going on properly,” he said. “But if you want to protect your reputation you would probably do a better job of making those checks in future.”
The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), whose members include two of the retailers linked to the factories involved in the investigation, New Look and River Island, is calling for agencies including GLAA, the Health and Safety Executive, HMRC, 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.”
Coulter urged retailers to address transparency issues and is recommending that its members consider imposing significant sanctions against factories that breach contracts.
The 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.
Drapers verdict: Sweatshop allegations must be a wake-up call
The industry needs to pull together to stamp out these bad practices once and for all. Of course the dreary picture painted by Dispatches is not reflective of the UK garment manufacturing industry as a whole, and equally this is not just a problem that is confined to Leicester. But the UK is facing a big opportunity to ramp up production capabilities in the face of rising costs overseas and as we start to extricate ourselves from Europe, which can only happen if we have a sustainable industry to start with. Retailers and suppliers need to work together to ensure production is happening where it should be, at realistic prices and with full audits, while the authorities must take a hard line on those who look for loopholes or slip through the net. Now is the time to make a stand.