Open Letter to Government Urging Protection and Rights for UK Garment Workers
The BBC Panorama programme on 6th November shone an ugly spotlight once again on the ongoing exploitation of garment workers and the lack of oversight in fashion supply chains in Leicester. The investigation highlights the continued unfair and abusive purchasing practices which squeeze suppliers on prices and lead times. In turn this impacts worker who are underpaid, harassed and forced into insecure jobs.
- BBC Panorama’s investigation reveals abusive sourcing practices not unique to one brand or country, but systemic and widespread across the garment industry.
- The programme shows clearly that the pressure to drive prices down comes from the very top at Boohoo and disregards the commitments previously made to suppliers, as well as the welfare of workers
- Employment conditions in Leicester are worsening as a result with workers paying the price for reduced prices on orders and outsourcing abroad – official data shows a reduction of 67% in manufacturing of garments employment in Leicester between 2021-2023.
- The practices revealed by Panorama are enabled by lack of regulation and oversight of the industry on behalf of the government and the failures of voluntary agreements.
In response, 35 trade unions, labour rights organisations and academics wrote to the UK government calling for urgent action.
Labour Behind the Label believes that the entire fashion brand business model puts suppliers under unsustainable strain to deliver ever-lower prices and ever quicker speed. This drives exploitative behaviour with workers paying the ultimate price, while brands outsource responsibility to suppliers.
Here in the UK we have a chance to create a blueprint for a different industry, but we need a real commitment from UK brands and we need action from the government. Leicester garment workers deserve good jobs and fair wages.
We need the UK government to support a more ethical business. Only effective regulation that covers both brands’ purchasing practices and comprehensive supply chain responsibility can stem the race to the bottom and begin to build a fairer garment industry.
The past decade has seen numerous reports detailing similar practices in Leicester garment factories, and other factories both in the UK and internationally. The situation was also investigated during the 2019 Environmental Audit Committee investigation into Fast Fashion and concerns were raised in Parliament in December 2020. Operation tacit has undertaken good work in visiting suppliers and monitoring poor practices. However, it has failed and will fail to get to the heart of the abuses and endemic underpayment in the UK because it is limited to enforcement agencies alone and because the UK government still insists on linking immigration enforcement to labour market enforcement.
It also failed because it failed to address one of the key causes of workplace abuse in the garment industry and that is exploitative and unethical purchasing practices such as low pricing, unilateral discounts, bullying and lack of communication. It is clear in 2023, that much more effective and pro-active action needs to be taken, especially given the lack of progress made.
As a result Labour Behind the Label is circulating an Open Letter requesting that Government take 5 essential and urgent steps:
- Protect all workers in the Leicester garment industry and ensure that timely remedy, including payment of unpaid wages and so on, is provided to those who have been the victims of non- payment or underpayment of wages and benefits (wage theft), furlough fraud, unsafe environments, and modern slavery.
- Ensure that the government works with stakeholders, including unions and workers to examine the underlying causes of exploitation.
- Ensure that the government invests in labour market enforcement agencies including ensuring sufficient transparency and collaboration between agencies and among the community.
- Establish a Garment Trading Adjudicator to help stop unfair purchasing practices by the largest clothing retailers and brands operating in the UK market.
- Work towards the implementation of due diligence legislation – a Business, Human Rights and Environment Act 2 – that will hold business, finance and the public sector to account when they fail to prevent supply chain human rights abuses and environmental harms.
Fashion-Enter CEO Jenny Holloway has signed this letter, she said: “The constant greenwashing by retailers is totally unacceptable, and they will be caught out as the recent Panorama documentary clearly demonstrates.
“For decades FEL has been operating a totally ethical factory and we’ve been competing against factories that coerce their labour force into long, unacceptable working hours as well as paying cash at £3 per hour. Many times we argued with retailers that the prices were unethical and thankfully we maintained our beliefs and values.
“The brands have a huge responsibility to deliver their ethical practices and words are cheap. However, the financial damage of not upholding promises is there to see with Boohoo. We’re maintaining the right way forward with our ethical and compliant factory and we’re proud of the stance we take.”
There is an ongoing campaign from Labour Behind the Label: ‘Garment Workers in Leicester Deserve Good Jobs’ tap here to sign the petition.