Exploited workers in UK garment factories that supply clothing brands have been “robbed” of £27m since July because they are still being systematically underpaid, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC).
The trade body and Scottish National party MP Lisa Cameron – who chairs a cross-party group of MPs on textiles and fashion – have written to the Home Office urging it to act faster to protect vulnerable workers.
The intervention follows increased scrutiny of the textiles industry – especially in Leicester – after revelations about conditions affecting workers in the supply chain that feeds fashion firm Boohoo.
An estimated 10,000 garment workers are being paid just £3.50 an hour, compared to the national minimum wage of £8.72, the BRC and Cameron said, basing the estimate on comments by North West Leicestershire MP Andrew Bridgen.
They said this meant workers had missed out on £2.1m a week – or £27m in total – since retailers, MPs and NGOs last wrote to the Home Office in July calling for better protection for exploited textiles employees.
“This violation of workers’ rights cannot be allowed to continue, and government has a key role to play in this,” the BRC said.
The trade body wants the government to set up a “fit-to-trade” licensing scheme that would better protect workers against forced labour and other mistreatment, as well as ensuring payment of VAT, national insurance and holiday pay, among other entitlements.
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 & 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.”
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.”
The Leicester garments industry came under scrutiny after reports of underpaid workers exposed to poor health and safety conditions.