Despite the Modern Slavery Act, poor labour conditions are prevalent in the fast fashion industry
Concerns have been raised by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that the Government does not monitor whether statements made under the Modern Slavery Act comply with the legislation, writes Dods Monitoring's Andy Frain.
British people are Europe’s fast fashion addicts. Consumption of new clothing is estimated to be higher in the UK than any other European country, and manufacturers are in engaged in an unceasing floral-printed arms-race to satisfy that demand.
Earlier this year the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) investigated the social and environmental impact of disposable ‘fast fashion’. For the fashion industry, the report was damning.
Describing the way that we make and use clothing as “unsustainable”, the report attracted headlines for its focus on the environmental damage caused by fashion that people perceive as “disposable”.
Companies like ASOS and Boohoo came under criticism for their focus on saving money in the production process rather than sustainability, but the undeniable truth is that they are simply responding to public demand. Last year Boohoo released a range of £5 dresses, and despite howls of anguish from campaigners and competitors, the range has proven immensely popular with the company’s millennial target market.
The cost is more than just environmental, however. The EAC’s report emphasised that “forced labour” was still present in contemporary supply chains, expressing particular concern about the use of child labour and prison labour.
Arguably most concerning was the comparatively high awareness of poor labour conditions within garment-making – the globalisation of production has also to led to an apparent globalisation of indifference. The forced labour within cotton production can be found in far-off Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, whereas Anti-Slavery International campaigner Kate Elsayed-Ali also highlighted the Sumangali system practiced in India to illustrate the often ‘gendered’ nature of forced and child labour.
Tempting though it might be, however, to dismiss modern slavery as an overseas problem, to do so would grossly mischaracterise the situation.
A “Made in the UK” label may assuage the worries of concerned consumers, but the Committee noted the “open secret” that there were British factories paying wages well below the legal level. Leicester has the dubious honour of being Britain’s fast fashion capital, with a number of garment factories paying staff well below the minimum wage, often in illegally sub-standard working conditions.
The fact that such practices have a presence in the UK may surprise some observers. The much-vaunted Modern Slavery Act contains a clause relating directly to transparency in supply chains; businesses with a turnover of more than £36m required to produce a statement setting out the steps the organisation has taken to ensure that modern slavery is not taking place in their business or supply chain.
The Government believes that this is sufficient, claiming that the Act has increased transparency in supply chains. However, concerns have been raised by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that the Government does not monitor whether statements made under the Modern Slavery Act comply with the legislation and the Government has never used its powers to penalise companies that do not comply.
Compliance is far from universal - research at Leeds University identified 24 leading retailers, including Foot Locker and Valentino, who are non-compliant with the Modern Slavery Act by not making available their modern slavery statements as of December 2018.
Governmental Response So Far
Despite the EAC’s damning conclusions, May this year saw the Government respond with comparative indifference. They rejected each of the report’s recommendations, pointing out their commitment to the rising minimum wage and the actions of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act.
On the topic of public procurement, the official response to the report highlighted that bidders for Government contracts are now required to show their compliance and the Government believes these measures are sufficient to root out Modern Slavery within the context of public contracts.
Behavioural change was another area in which the Government claimed to be acting proportionately. They noted a series of events held in the UK to boost environmental awareness and insisted that children were educated on the topic of sustainability throughout their school lives.
Chair of the Committee Mary Creagh was withering in her criticism of the Government response, claiming that Ministers had failed to acknowledge the severity and urgency of the environmental crisis. She repeated her calls for greater transparency within the supply chains of big fashion companies and accused some of them of flouting the 2015 Modern Slavery Act.
The Future Direction of Policy
Of course, much has changed since the summer, with a new Prime Minister, a new Cabinet and a new set of political priorities. The Government has responded to growing public concerns about the climate crisis by emphasising their environmental record but have, so far, remained comparatively reticent in the area of sustainable fashion.
More action has been seen in combatting low domestic wages - over Conference season, the Chancellor Sajid Javid announced a dramatic increase in the minimum wage, taking it to two-thirds of median earnings by April 2024, for all workers aged 21 and over.
However, campaigners have warned that this may prove ineffectual in the case of fashion supply chains, due to the disproportionately globalised nature of the work force and the fact that some British factories have been flatly ignoring the existing rules for many years.
Only four years after the landmark Modern Slavery Act, there remains a clear prevalence of unsustainable environmental and social practices in the sector. Ultimately, this is unlikely to change dramatically until it becomes politically expedient for it to move up the agenda, and, given the overwhelming sense of indifference towards the issue amongst the general public, this seems a long way away.
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