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The much-delayed Employment Bill must make fast fashion brands liable for exploitation in their supply chains

The much-delayed Employment Bill must make fast fashion brands liable for exploitation in their supply chains

No longer should firms like boohoo hide behind the claim that companies in its supply chain are ‘third party’ businesses that they have no responsibility for, writes Claudia Webbe MP. | PA Images

4 min read

Covid-19 is a serious workplace risk; with women in the garment industry among the hardest hit. The government must ensure adequate standards are in place to protect workers.

Recently published figures provided a stark reminder of working conditions in Britain’s garment industry – both during and before the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to shocking new data from the Office for National Statistics, women working in Britain’s garment factories are four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than the average woman worker. The analysis of official statistics reveals that women sewing machinists have the highest Covid-19 fatality rate of any female occupation. This rate is higher than for women working in at-risk sectors like caring, leisure and other service occupations.

In my own constituency of Leicester East, some factories have operated throughout the Covid-19 lockdowns with no social distancing measures in place and with staff working 12-hour shifts, 7-days a week and paid well below the minimum wage. This undoubtedly contributes to our ongoing and continued high levels of Covid-19 cases in Leicester.

This demonstrates the need for the government to register Covid-19 as a ‘serious’ workplace risk so that additional powers can be provided to enable workplaces to be closed during a lockdown – with non-compliant employers prosecuted if necessary. As the ONS’ figures demonstrate, it is not only a moral and ethical imperative for the crisis of exploitation to be addressed, but a major public health issue too.

In parliament, The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), has embarked on a follow-up public inquiry on fashion sustainability, including the re-examination of Leicester’s Garment Industry. Despite being widely reported and studied for at least a decade, successive governments have failed to address the crisis in our garment industry. The Committee has also campaigned to investigate money laundering and lost taxation within the garment industry.

It is not only a moral and ethical imperative for the crisis of exploitation to be addressed, but a major public health issue too

The time has come for parliament to introduce new legislation such as a Garment Trading Adjudicator, similar to the Groceries Code Adjudicator already in place in the food sector. This could end unacceptable purchasing practices which drive prices down and demand unrealistic production times, encouraging sub-contracting and exploitative labour practices. 

Parliament must also legislate to facilitate access for trade unions to factories and the garment sector to help ensure adequate standards are in place to protect workers. Unions are the best line of defence against workplace exploitation, and employers and the government must open the door for their involvement. Rights are also meaningless if they are not properly enforced; the severe cuts to regulatory bodies including the HSE, HMRC and Fire Authorities must be urgently reversed to ensure the safety and fair pay of those at work

The government must use its much-delayed Employment Bill to make brands and retailers liable for abuses in their supply chains. No longer should firms like boohoo hide behind the claim that companies in its supply chain are ‘third party’ businesses that they have no responsibility for. This is especially concerning given the company’s recent acquisition of Debenhams, as well as several Arcadia group brands. A statutory Mandatory Human Rights and Due Diligence Responsibility must be introduced for the entire textile and clothing industry. 

The crisis in the textiles industry is global in its scale. A conservative guess of wages lost by garment workers worldwide, excluding China, for the months of March, April, and May 2020 amounts to between $3.19 and $5.79 billion. It is vital that post-Brexit trade deals are mindful of this and are designed to end the exploitation of workers across the world.

Billionaires exist when and where employees are exploited. We cannot allow companies to get away with this predatory business model, in which corporate profits are prioritised above human rights and wellbeing.

The government has all the evidence and recommendations. They must finally act to end the scourge of exploitation in Leicester, across the UK and around the world.

 

Claudia Webbe MP is the Member of Parliament for Leicester East.

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