Leicester mayor calls on retailers to 'procure ethically'

Leicester mayor Sir Peter Soulsby and trade union TUC Midlands have called on fashion retailers to agree to procure ethically from factories.

Sir Peter sent a letter inviting retailers “to end unethical employment practices” by pledging to “only procure from manufacturers who recognise a trade union”.

This follows fallout from the Boohoo Leicester factory scandal, in which it was alleged workers were paid less than the minimum wage and were put at risk of coronavirus.

Retailers including Boohoo, Asos and New Look have been asked to attend a summit meeting on 29 September to commit to a TUC agreement under which they would only manufacture products using an ethical supply chain.

The agreement ensures retailers only use suppliers who are part of a trade union, provide access to health, safety and employment law information, and engage with trade union representatives to ensure work isn’t subcontracted to third parties. 

The letter highlighted the importance of supporting the UK garment industry, and that “Leicester could be the engine of this resurgent industry” if ethical concerns are addressed. 

While there are “companies which struggle to demonstrate that products are not produced by exploited workers operating in dangerous conditions – or worse, by victims of modern slavery”, the industry will not recover, the letter said.

It warned that while efforts have been made to audit suppliers and follow employment laws, “these have clearly not been successfully implemented universally and too many people remain employed across Leicester with substandard terms and conditions”.

Sir Peter said: “This is not a new problem but it has been once again highlighted by recent revelations about minimum wage violations and suggestions that working conditions in the industry may have been a catalyst for the spike in Covid-19 cases in the city.

“We have been working for some time to tackle this challenge but it isn’t something the local authority can solve alone, nor is it Leicester’s problem alone.”

He said if the agreement was implemented, “it would give greater employment protection and security to thousands of people in the city”.

Lee Barron, regional secretary at TUC Midlands, said: “Some retailers have tried to put systems in place to demonstrate that they procure ethically but too many garments, manufactured by people working in terrible conditions and for poverty wages, continue to get into their supply chains.

“There is only one way that these large fashion retailers can be sure that health and safety and other good employment practices are being adhered to in their supply chains and that is by insisting that they will only procure from manufacturers who recognise a trade union.”

Other retailers invited to the summit include the Arcadia Group, TK Maxx, Missguided, Next, River Island and Quiz Clothing.

Meanwhile, Priti Patel, secretary of state for the Home Office, also sent a letter to Boohoo CEO John Lyttle asking the retailer to work with suppliers to “protect vulnerable workers” rather than end contracts.

Patel said: “I am concerned that your response to recent reports of labour exploitation in your supply chains appears to be focused on terminating contracts with suppliers found to have breached your code of conduct, rather than on protecting vulnerable workers. I would expect Boohoo to work with its suppliers to ensure that workers are protected and remediated.”

The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) has refused to provide evidence to Boohoo's investigation into its supply chain. The ETI criticised the inquiry's focus and questioned its independence.

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