Back whistleblowers to stop abuses, says UK anti-slavery tsar after Boohoo fallout

by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 9 July 2020 17:11 GMT

Britain's anti-slavery commissioner Sara Thornton poses for a picture in London, England, on August 6, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kieran Guilbert

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Factory workers in Leicester are scared to report labour exploitation for fear of losing jobs, said Britain’s anti-slavery commissioner

By Kieran Guilbert

LONDON, July 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain's efforts to stop labour exploitation in the local supply chains of fashion brands such as Boohoo will only succeed if workers are encouraged to report abuses without fear of retaliation, its anti-slavery tsar said on Thursday.

Online fast fashion retailer Boohoo this week said it was investigating its supply chain in Leicester, central England, after media and campaigner reports that some of its suppliers underpaid workers and failed to protect them from COVID-19.

Authorities including police, immigration officials and health and safety inspectors said they had found no evidence of modern slavery in their first round of visits to factories in Leicester, with more inspections planned in the coming weeks.

Campaigners said garment workers in Leicester - many of whom come from South Asia or Eastern Europe - are vulnerable to abuse and unlikely to speak out, often because they lack the right to work or live in Britain and fear being arrested or deported.

"We need to work out a way to give workers some kind of security and support if they are to blow the whistle," Britain's independent anti-slavery commissioner, Sara Thornton, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

Leicester is home to about 1,500 textile factories and 10,000 garment workers, according to its local government.

Workers earning about 3.50 pounds ($4.43) per hour - less than half the legal minimum - accepted poor conditions and terms because they were scared to lose their jobs, said Thornton, who outlined a wide range of abuses from low pay to debt bondage.

Thornton also said brands should not dump suppliers over labour abuses but support them to improve working conditions.

Boohoo said on Wednesday its investigation to date had not found evidence of suppliers paying workers 3.50 pounds an hour, but that it cut ties with two suppliers for unspecified reasons.

"The best companies work with suppliers to cascade ethical standards down the supply chain, they don't abandon them at the first sign of trouble," said Thornton. "They say they're going to work on the issues together. I think that's very important."

INVESTOR PRESSURE

Fashion experts and insiders say exploitation of textile workers in Britain has gone unaddressed despite many exposes in recent years and a parliamentary probe into the matter in 2019.

Activists and academics this week called for measures from more funding for labour inspections to laws ensuring companies conduct human rights due diligence, and urged brands to improve their purchasing practices to alleviate pressure on suppliers.

Thornton added that Britain's landmark 2015 Modern Slavery Act, which requires large firms to outline their anti-slavery efforts, must be expanded to penalise those that fail to comply.

The commissioner - who took up her role in May 2019 - also said investors had a vital role to play in forcing boards of major brands to take action on issues such as labour abuses.

One of Boohoo's biggest investors, Jupiter Asset Management, said it was "actively engaging" with the company, while another major shareholder, Invesco, said it would investigate the "circumstances and validity" of recent reports of exploitation.

Boohoo this week announced an independent supply chain review and pledged 10 million pounds to tackle the issue.

Its shares fell by about 42% from Monday to Wednesday - wiping more than 2 billion pounds off its value in three days - before the stock rallied on Thursday by ending the day up 27%.

Following the disruption to global supply chains by the coronavirus pandemic - affecting suppliers and in turn workers in nations from Bangladesh to Cambodia - manufacturer groups said some British retailers had turned to local factories.

"There is a big debate in the sector (in Britain) about reshoring and shortening the supply chain," Thornton said.

"The label 'Made in Britain' should be a sign of workers being treated well and paid fairly," she added. "But companies need to think about the cost of the labour behind the product."

Related stories:

Workers rights allegations fail to deter Boohoo's sell-side backers

Traffickers could profit when UK eases lockdown, anti-slavery chief warns

Too many modern slaves left in limbo, says new UK anti-slavery commissioner

(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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