Cri­sis leaves fast-fash­ion’s image in rags

A se­ries of dis­jointed reg­u­la­tions have al­lowed Le­ices­ter’s sweat­shops to slip through the net amid sec­tor’s boom,

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business - writes Laura Onita

‘Af­ter the cri­sis, to re­vi­talise the econ­omy, min­is­ters cut back health and safety in­spec­tions’

‘Boohoo has been thriv­ing as one of the few brands to see sales jump dur­ing the pan­demic’

Un­til a week ago, some peo­ple may have thought that un­der­paid work­ers and in­salu­bri­ous gar­ment fac­to­ries were ei­ther a thing of the past or lim­ited to far-flung places. Yet the cloth­ing sweat­shops in the English city of Le­ices­ter are at the cen­tre of a fresh string of al­le­ga­tions sur­round­ing fast-fash­ion firms such as Boohoo and now Quiz.

What is worse is that none of it is new. A lit­tle over a year ago, the Gov­ern­ment re­jected all nine rec­om­men­da­tions to help end the throw­away na­ture of fast-fash­ion.

Mary Creagh, a Labour MP and chair of the en­vi­ron­men­tal au­dit com­mit­tee, said in 2019 it had pre­sented ev­i­dence that “gar­ment work­ers in this coun­try [are] crim­i­nally un­der­paid”.

The se­lect com­mit­tee re­port, in turn, was partly trig­gered by a flurry of me­dia re­ports in re­cent years, in­clud­ing an ex­pose in the Fi­nan­cial

Times, high­light­ing poor work­ing con­di­tions in Le­ices­ter.

The Univer­sity of Le­ices­ter con­ducted its own re­search ex­pos­ing sweat­shop labour in the gar­ment in­dus­try. In 2015, one of its con­clu­sions was: “The ma­jor­ity of work­ers in Le­ices­ter’s gar­ment sec­tor earn around £3 per hour, re­ceive wages cash in hand and do not hold an em­ploy­ment con­tract.”

The find­ings put lo­cal au­thor­i­ties in an un­com­fort­able po­si­tion. Tak­ing a tough stance, cou­pled with the neg­a­tive pub­lic­ity sur­round­ing un­eth­i­cal trad­ing, could put firms off.

Prof Jonathan Davies, at De Mont­fort Univer­sity in Le­ices­ter, re­ferred to the fol­low­ing vi­gnette, from a lo­cal of­fi­cial, in a 2018 study about aus­ter­ity, in­clud­ing its ef­fects on the sweat­shop econ­omy in Le­ices­ter: “There are en­force­ment rules we could po­ten­tially use but they’re counter-pro­duc­tive … It’s about education of the sec­tor. But again, you’ve got to be very po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive about that … be­cause when you’re look­ing to pull busi­nesses … you’ve got to be care­ful. You don’t want to put them off com­ing into the city if you’ve got a neg­a­tive per­cep­tion.”

Af­ter the fi­nan­cial cri­sis, in a bid to re­vi­talise the econ­omy, min­is­ters cut back health and safety in­spec­tions to al­low a new breed of busi­ness own­ers to flour­ish, so breaches be­came more dif­fi­cult to spot. Then, there is the is­sue of cen­tral gov­ern­ment ver­sus lo­cal au­thor­i­ties. While the lat­ter are re­spon­si­ble for build­ing safety, en­forc­ing health and safety and the min­i­mum wage fall in the camp of the for­mer. More­over, fac­to­ries in Le­ices­ter can un­der-re­port hours, ac­cord­ing to em­ploy­ees, with work­ers seem­ingly paid a cor­rect wage, which makes ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties less ob­vi­ous for the tax­man. A min­i­mum wage in­spec­tion on an ad-hoc ba­sis from HMRC is even rarer.

Last year, how­ever, the Gov­ern­ment said HMRC and other en­force­ment agen­cies were tak­ing a more proac­tive ap­proach, with an in­crease in bud­get and of­fi­cers ded­i­cated to the na­tional min­i­mum wage en­force­ment.

So why has the in­jus­tice in Le­ices­ter only just started to cut through now? Last month, Labour Be­hind the La­bel, a cam­paign group, al­leged that some of Boohoo’s sup­pli­ers, which were al­lowed to stay open, had con­trib­uted to the spread of the in­fec­tion. The claims co­in­cided with Le­ices­ter go­ing into lo­cal lock­down. The re­tailer de­nies this and has said all its prac­tices are in

line with the law. It does not pub­lish a full list of sup­pli­ers; ri­val Pri­mark, which has also been crit­i­cised over the years for its treat­ment of sup­pli­ers, mean­while, does. Boohoo has also been thriv­ing as one of the few brands to see sales jump dur­ing the pan­demic.

Its ad­van­tage, of­ten a thorn in the side of com­peti­tors such as Asos, has been its flex­i­ble do­mes­tic sup­ply chain. Al­most half of Boohoo’s wares are man­u­fac­tured in the UK, so it was able to swiftly switch from mak­ing body­con dresses to loungewear in lock­down. Other re­tail­ers have had to con­tend with moun­tains of un­sold stock or ship­ping con­tain­ers stuck at ports with un­suit­able clothes.

So while fast-fash­ion it­self is un­der the mi­cro­scope, there is a broader ques­tion around the pro­cesses and laws, or lack thereof, that have al­legedly led to il­le­gal wages and poor work­ing con­di­tions in the

first place.

Quiz, Boohoo and Pri­mark have all faced scru­tiny over their sup­pli­ers

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