MPs have rejected Boohoo’s claim that it was surprised by allegations of labour malpractice in its supply chain, and challenged it to recognise trade unions and join a high-profile ethical trading organisation.
Philip Dunne, the Conservative chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, on Wednesday sent a letter to Boohoo co-founders Mahmud Kamani and Carol Kane saying it was “incredible” that the company’s board could profess itself shocked at recent allegations of illegal pay levels and unsafe conditions in Leicester, where many of its products are made.
Ms Kane, who was then co-chief executive, gave evidence to the same committee on similar issues in 2018 following a Financial Times investigation, he pointed out.
Boohoo has lost more than a third of its market value, roughly £1.5bn, this month after undercover reporters revealed they were paid as little as £3.50 an hour in factories that handled its clothes. The online retailer, whose sales soared during lockdown, last week launched an independent investigation into its supply chain.
“It is incredible that, over a year since the committee highlighted illegal working practices in its supply chain, Boohoo has publicly denied any knowledge of what has been happening for years,” Mr Dunne said.
“It is shameful that it took a pandemic and the ensuing outrage about working practices in their supply chain for Boohoo finally to be taken to task for turning a blind eye.”
The committee, whose membership includes Leicester East MP Claudia Webbe, asked what measures Boohoo had taken to protect workers that sew its clothes during the pandemic and whether it had continued to issue fines to manufacturers for late deliveries.
It also asked whether Boohoo would allow the establishment of formal trade unions, citing claims by Usdaw that workers had been told not to engage with its representatives.
Boohoo said it had received the letter from the Committee and that it would “of course be responding in due course”.
But it has in the past denied shutting unions out of its warehouse in Burnley. Last year, chief executive John Lyttle told the Financial Times that “a lot of our employees are in unions already” but that “we wouldn’t want to impose a specific union on any of our employees”.
“If Usdaw wants to attract our employees that’s up to them, not me,” he added.
Mr Dunne also said Boohoo had failed to keep a promise to the committee that it would apply for membership in the Ethical Trading Initiative, a body that monitors its members’ supply chains.
Peter McAllister, executive director of the ETI, confirmed that Boohoo had not formally applied for membership, adding that any application would require a “robust examination” of its buying practices as “we are not convinced that they would meet a number of critical aspects essential to ETI membership”.
Boohoo is linked with several other organisations that campaign against poor working conditions. But some have publicly voiced concerns about the latest allegations.
“The accusations of breaches of minimum wage law and forced labour do not align with the values of the coalition,” said the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a US-based organisation. It added that it “will be interested to learn the official findings” of the investigation that Boohoo has commissioned.
Hope for Justice, another campaign group, said it “will work with any organisation that is willing to commit to improve its policies and practices” but could not comment on its own investigations into Boohoo.