Online fast fashion retailer Boohoo says it has written to the Home Secretary and offered its support for a licensing scheme that ensures all garment factories are meeting their legal obligations to their employees. 

A coalition has called upon the government to implement a ‘Fit to Trade’ licensing scheme after a “concerning number of garment workers in key hubs in the UK, such as Leicester, have continued to work in factories throughout lockdown without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) or social distancing measures in place”.

In a joint letter to the Home Secretary Priti Patel, Dr Lisa Cameron MP, chair of the APPG for Textiles and Fashion, Baroness Young of Hornsey OBE, chair of the APPG for Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, Helen Dickinson OBE, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium say: “Responsible retailers and brands have made significant efforts to improve labour practices in garment factories, but whilst this has supported improvements in a handful of factories, it has not led to the desired system-wide changes needed.

“Most leading fashion retailers have therefore significantly scaled down their UK supply. There is now an opportunity for the UK to become a world-leading, innovative, export led, ethical fashion and textile manufacturing industry, delivering better skilled jobs, that in times of crisis can also be utilised for PPE production. If the right steps are taken, fashion retailers and brands will seek to source more production from the UK, which will provide new decent jobs in areas like the East Midlands and North West, and improve the country’s competitiveness and balance of trade.

“We, therefore, support the proposals of the British Retail Consortium and others on the need to implement statutory licensing of garment factory owners and managers to ensure they are ‘Fit to Trade’. This would protect workers and provide an incentive for retailers and brands to invest in the UK. As a minimum, this should cover protection of workers from forced labour, debt bondage and mistreatment, ensuring payment of National Minimum Wage, VAT, PAYE, National Insurance, Holiday Pay and Health and Safety. These measures will also raise tax revenues for the Treasury and create a barrier that prevents rogue businesses from accessing the market and undercutting legitimate fashion manufacturing companies, creating a level playing field for businesses to compete fairly.” 

The letter is supported by a number of signatories with brands including George at Asda, Asos, Next, River Island, New Look, Matalan and The Very Group. In terms of industry trade bodies and campaign groups, signatories include the UK Fashion & Textile Association and the Ethical Trading Initiative.

Boohoo, which has over the last two weeks been tangled in claims a supplier factory in Leicester was paying its workers as little as GBP3 an hour, had not signed the letter, but a spokesperson for the company said it had written to Priti Patel separately offering its “wholehearted support” for the move.

Boohoo quizzed on supply chain practices

Last week, chaiman of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) Philip Dunne wrote a letter to the group executive director and group executive chairman of Boohoo calling for answers to the reports of poor pay and conditions at Leicester garment factories supplying Boohoo. 

In February last year, the EAC had published the results of its eight-month inquiry into the social and environmental impact of ‘fast fashion’ and the wider clothing industry in which it highlighted findings from the University of Leicester published in 2015 that the majority of Leicester’s garment workers were paid below the National Minimum Wage, did not have employment contracts, and were subject to intense and arbitrary work practices.

Boohoo, Asos and Misguided CEOs were invited to parliament to discuss the situation in Leicester along with the sustainability practices of the fast-fashion business model.

The committee also noted Boohoo had not signed up to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) like some of its competitors. Last summer, Boohoo said it was “taking steps to gain membership, had submitted an initial application to join and were meeting with the ETI in August 2019. 

“Almost a year since this correspondence, we asked the ETI whether Boohoo is now a full member. Peter McAllister, ETI’s executive director responded that although ETI had several exploratory conversations with Boohoo, Boohoo were not yet members, and furthermore the ETI “are not convinced that [Boohoo] would meet a number of critical aspects essential to ETI membership”… It is disappointing that Boohoo has not formally recognised a trade union and has chosen not to be a part of the Ethical Trading Initiative.”

The EAC asked Boohoo to respond to several questions including whether factories were fined for late delivery during the pandemic, whether it would commit to establishing formal trade union recognition and why it had not applied for membership to the ETI. 

“A ‘Made in the UK’ label should mean workers are paid at least the minimum wage in a safe workspace. Given Boohoo has stated it is committed to doing everything in our power to rebuild the reputation of the textile manufacturing industry in Leicester, I look forward to your prompt response to these questions. The Committee intends to follow up on its Fixing Fashion inquiry and will monitor progress – or lack of it – in tackling these issues.”

“A poster child for the wrong type of business”

The ETI’s Peter McAllister said he applauded the letter from the chair of the EAC to Boohoo’s senior executives.

“It is important to hold individual companies to account and Boohoo as a successful, high profile and iconic brand merits the scrutiny the Committee is bringing.

“However the solution lies beyond the behaviour of one brand or indeed one city. It really goes to the heart of what we want from the UK for the future. Are we prepared to tolerate abuse, whether in the garment industry, or in agriculture, which has also been in the news this week? Or do we want to establish an environment where responsible business is the norm?

“Boohoo is a poster child for the wrong type of business success. But fixing Boohoo does not fix the problem. The right approach is one that is a smart combination of effective regulation, well-funded and supported regulatory agencies, transparency that rewards responsible business and punishes those willing to break the law or lower standards for short term gain, workers with a voice in their workplace and consumers who do not have to choose between ethical products and those tainted by exploitation.”

A spokesperson for Boohoo said it had received the letter from the EAC and would “of course be responding in due course.”