Time to stamp out modern slavery in retail

‘We must work to rebuild a more ethical future for the millions of people who make our business possible’
Helen Dickinson, Chief executive, British Retail Consortium
By Helen Dickinson, Chief executive, British Retail Consortium

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act entered the statute book on March 25, 1807, prohibiting slavery in the British Empire. Yet, more than 200 years later, slavery still exists, with workers being ruthlessly exploited for commercial gain. And, sadly, this is happening in our retail industry.

While retailers have been working hard to stamp out labour exploitation in their supply chains, human rights abuses continue to occur. Take Leicester, the centre of UK clothing and textile manufacture, home to the remains of King Richard III, a triumphant football team and respected universities. Despite this appearance as modern and forward thinking, approximately 10,000 garment workers are being exploited in its factories; forced to work long hours for £3 to £4 an hour at best. How can this be happening right under our noses?

Lobbying government to safeguard fair pay

The British Retail Consortium and our members are doing all we can to eliminate these exploitative practices from supply chains. Our members are working with Fast Forward, a supply chain labour standards improvement programme, that exposes hidden exploitation and assesses adherence to employment laws and ethical labour standards requirements. It provides training for suppliers, implements better supplier terms and blacklists exploitative suppliers. However, more must be done to raise the entire UK fashion and textile industry to the same standards. 

We also work with enforcement agencies such as the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), which is raising awareness of the problem and fighting to “protect vulnerable and exploited workers and disrupt exploitative practices and help bring criminals to justice”. We have also signed up to the Apparel and General Merchandise Public and Private Protocol.

In July, we wrote to home secretary Priti Patel – the letter was signed by more than 50 MPs and peers, and 40 retailers, investors and NGOs – to demand a fit-to-trade licensing scheme for UK garment factories. This scheme would protect workers from forced labour, debt bondage and mistreatment, ensuring payment of the national minimum wage, VAT, PAYE, National Insurance and holiday pay.

It would also provide an equal opportunity for businesses to compete fairly and prevent miscreant businesses from undercutting honest manufacturers. Similar licensing schemes exist in farming, with anyone who supplies workers for activities such as harvesting produce requiring a licence from the GLAA to operate.

More must be done to protect retail workers

It is incredibly disappointing that the government has still not acted on these proposals; they are effectively extending the suffering these individuals are forced to endure. Every week that goes by represents tens of millions of pounds of refused wages. This lost money is crucial; it represents the mouths that cannot be fed and the homes that cannot be heated.

We will not stop campaigning until serious action is taken. We are currently working with MPs, notably Dr Lisa Cameron, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Textiles and Fashion, who tabled a motion in Parliament calling on the government to “implement the British Retail Consortium’s proposal for a fit-to-trade licensing scheme for all garment factories in the UK”. 

The government could adopt such a licensing scheme within months; it is a clear, attainable step. Customers want to know the clothes they buy have been made by workers who are valued, respected, paid properly and protected by the law.

We cannot let these opportunities pass us by. We must work to rebuild a more sustainable and ethical future for the millions of people who make our business possible, and for the world we live in.