Blog: Leonie BarrieGreen labour promises could fall short

Leonie Barrie | 13 August 2007

UK retail magnate Sir Philip Green is making all the right noises when it comes to allegations this weekend that some of the Mauritian factories used to make garments for his stores are flouting labour rules and underpaying their workers. He has promised to investigate the accusations, but his aside that “I can’t stand there and count how many hours people are working” suggests this problem is perhaps more widespread than he’s prepared to let on – or that the company’s own auditing and inspection process falls some way short of the mark.

In another case last year, Sir Philip said he could find no cause for concern at a Cambodian factory, even though it was judged among the worst of those inspected in Cambodia by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). In contrast, other retailers sourcing from the same supplier rushed to issue statements saying they were trying to resolve any problems.

Allegations about working conditions are so serious that they must not be dismissed, but just relying on paperwork and audits suggests the need to safeguard a public image is more important than a real commitment to improving working conditions in the supply chain. I could be wrong of course, but it’s also fair to say that Sir Philip’s apparent lack of communication with labour rights groups also makes him a target for their ire, as does his reluctance to engage with an organisation such as the Ethical Trading Initiative.

But perhaps the real catalyst for change will come from the consumer. More and more shoppers are beginning to understand that the disposable GBP2 T-shirt is just not sustainable, and many industry experts believe there could be a consumer backlash against cheap clothes as the trend for a more ethical way of living takes hold. As Jane Shepherdson, who resigned from Topshop as brand director last year, recently pointed out, consumers cannot keep buying cheap clothes and “not ask where they come from.” I just hope Sir Philip has his excuses properly prepared by then – or is prepared to accept the consequences.

Topshop hit by ‘slave labour’ claims


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