The government has been accused of inaction over alleged worker exploitation in textile factories that supply major clothing brands, with a retail trade body estimating £27 million of wage underpayment since July.
In a letter to home secretary Priti Patel, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said there had been no significant action to address worker exploitation in UK garment factories since it last approached the government in the summer, and urged Patel to act faster to protect vulnerable workers.
The letter, which has also been signed by Scottish National Party MP Lisa Cameron, estimates that 10,000 garment workers are being paid £3.50 an hour – well below the national minimum wage of £8.72.
The BRC, investors, MPs, human rights groups and retailers including Next and Asos wrote to the government about the issue in July, urging it to ensure factory staff were paid the minimum wage following the revelations about the conditions at factories that supply Boohoo, but the BRC’s latest letter suggests no action has been taken.
BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson said: “The BRC has repeatedly called on government to do more to prevent labour exploitation in the UK garment manufacturing industry.
“Despite numerous reports in the media, and a previous letter to the home secretary signed by over 50 MPs and peers and more than 40 retailers, investors and NGOs, we have not seen any significant action from government to bring this injustice to an end.
“All the while garment workers are robbed of tens of millions of pounds in wages. Our members continue to stand firm against labour exploitation. Implementing statutory licensing of UK garment factories would ensure they are all ‘fit to trade’. We hope the home secretary joins us in this fight.”
In July, Boohoo launched an investigation into allegations of unsafe working practices and minimum wage underpayment in its supply chain and has vowed to “act decisively” to improve conditions. The review, led by lawyer Alison Levitt QC, found Boohoo’s senior leadership knew about issues with workplace conditions in factories since last December, but found there was no evidence any criminal offences had been committed.
A government spokesperson said: “Exploiting vulnerable workers for commercial gain is despicable and we expect businesses to do all they can to tackle abuse and exploitation in their supply chains.
“We are deeply concerned by the appalling reports of illegal and unsafe working conditions for garment workers in Leicester, and will ensure perpetrators face the full force of the law if evidence comes to light through the work of our new specialist taskforce, led by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority.”