The BRC co-ordinated a multi-stakeholder letter to the Home Secretary calling for a Fit-to-Trade licensing scheme so that no factory could operate unless it was approved by the labour enforcement agencies

The BRC co-ordinated a multi-stakeholder letter to the Home Secretary calling for a 'Fit-to-Trade' licensing scheme so that no factory could operate unless it was approved by the labour enforcement agencies

The UK government says it will continue discussions on what solutions are available for the garment industry as part of its commitment to eradicating modern slavery, amid calls for a licensing scheme to tackle illegally low paid and unsafe conditions in some garment factories.

The comments come in a letter from Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins to Lisa Cameron MP, Baroness Young of Hornsey, and British Retail Consortium (BRC) CEO Helen Dickinson OBE in response to a multi-stakeholder letter co-ordinated by the BRC.

The document, which was signed by almost 100 retailers, MPs, investors, NGOs and other stakeholders, was addressed to the Home Secretary and sent on 18 July. It called for a 'Fit-to-Trade' licensing scheme so that no factory could operate unless it was approved by labour enforcement agencies.

A follow-up was sent last week, noting garment factory workers were collectively losing GBP2.1m a week in under payment of wages.

In her correspondence, Atkins says the government recognises that licensing can be a valuable tool for driving up standards and tackling labour exploitation in certain sectors.

She adds, however, this needs to be balanced against the potential creation of a burden on compliant businesses.

"Given the serious nature of the allegations in Leicester and the spectrum of issues and concerns, it is imperative that we have a strong evidence base to inform the options we are considering to protect vulnerable workers and drive up standards. We will continue to consider the most appropriate measures do this alongside the work of the Taskforce that has been set up in Leicester." 

Thanking the BRC, Cameron, and Baroness Young for their support and dedication in ensuring that modern slavery does not exist in the textile and fashion industry, Atkins reiterates the Home Secretary's comments made both in Parliament and in the media and expresses her "deep concern about these appalling reports of illegal and unsafe working conditions for garment workers in Leicester."

She adds: "The Government is committed to tackling modern slavery and will not tolerate the exploitation of vulnerable workers for commercial gain."

'Fit-to-Trade' licensing

The BRC says under its 'Fit-to-Trade' licensing scheme proposal – which is based on the existing licensing scheme for labour providers to the food and farming industry – garment factories have to have a license to be able to operate.

"To get the license they have to be checked that they are operating in line with the law. We would say these checks by enforcement agencies would, as a minimum, cover protection of workers from forced labour, debt bondage and mistreatment of workers, ensuring payment of National Minimum Wage, VAT, PAYE, National Insurance, Holiday Pay and Health and Safety.

"Businesses would be checked on a regular basis that they are in compliant with the law. Those that prove again and again they are would likely be checked fewer and fewer times, whereas those with problems would be issued a warning and a set of recommendations to implement within a set time. If the business fails to improve its license would be removed and it would no longer be able to operate."

The news comes after the results of an independent review into online fashion retailer Boohoo Group's UK supply chain. The probe, which was conducted by senior barrister Alison Levitt QC, was launched after media reports surfaced in July that one of Boohoo's Leicester-based supplier factories was paying staff just GBP3.50 (US$4.38) an hour to work in unsafe conditions and in breach of UK coronavirus lockdowns.

The retailer said it would cut ties with factories that breached its supplier code of conduct, while a number of retailers removed the group's brands from their websites as a result of the claims. 

Boohoo has pledged to strengthen its sourcing team and work more closely with suppliers after the review identified "many failings" but determined its business model is not founded on exploiting workers in Leicester.

Meanwhile, the UK Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has recently announced plans to follow up on its 2018 inquiry into the state of the British fashion industry due to what it says are continued concerns around the environmental impact of the sector and working conditions in UK garment factories.