'Mistreatment of workers in UK fashion industry must end'

Fashion and creative industries in the UK had a combined turnover of £84.4bn in 2017 and formed 5.4 percent of the nation’s GDP, so the value of the UK’s fashion industry is irrefutable. Fashion is something Britain is particularly renowned for, with nearly 25 percent of all those surveyed identifying the fashion industry as what made Britain attractive. 

Cleary, the UK’s fashion industry is invaluable, and as such, it is vital we retain regulated manufacturing operations within our borders. 

As we have seen in the media over the last month, a concerning number of garment workers in key hubs across the UK, such as Leicester, have reportedly continued to work in factories throughout lockdown in crowded, unregulated conditions.

The reports of varying horrific conditions add weight to the growing concerns of Modern Slavery, which many argue, is a crime at the core of fashion industries across the world, including in the UK. Brands both big and small must take steps to adapt and ethically source their labour, rather than wait for the Government to regulate.

While most reports have rightly highlighted the shocking physical conditions and economic exploitation these workers are facing, it is important to highlight the impact modern slavery has on the mental health of victims.

Victims of modern slavery are often prevented from accessing basic health care, including mental health resources. Yet, given the nature of the modern-slavery, the figures are ambiguous.

Still, estimates suggest there could be more than 100,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK, meaning, there could be over 100,000 vulnerable people with neither basic health care nor minimum wage.  It is crucial the Government not only steps-up and creates a clear, transparent process by which victims can access support without penalty, but the Government must also ensure and enforce the regulation of supply-chains.

As it currently stands, only high-profit companies must adhere to supply-chain slavery transparency – and even then, not all do. Though the responsibility does not rest with the Government alone.

The fashion industry itself must step-up. COVID-19 has proven how powerful and capable the fashion industry can be, with brands both big and small repurposing their operations to create PPE masks and gowns and save lives. The industry has therefore proven it can adapt, so moving forward, brands both big and small must take steps to adapt and ethically source their labour, rather than wait for the Government to regulate. 

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.

If the right steps are taken, fashion retailers and brands will seek to source more production from the UK, which will provide new jobs for the UK economy and benefit trade. 

As chair of the All-party Group for Textiles and Fashion, I am working with the BRC and have written to the Home Secretary, requesting urgent action, starting with the implementation of a ‘Fit to Trade’ Licensing Scheme to ensure all garment factories meet legal obligations to employees.

This licensing should cover protection of workers from forced labour, debt bondage and mistreatment, ensuring receipt of the National Minimum Wage and other personal finance basics, like sick pay. The British Fashion Industry is renowned for its quality, but it’s time for this reputation to encompass the equality and rights of which we give our workers, and to do so, we need to act.

Unless action is taken now, thousands more will face exploitation both now and beyond the coronavirus crisis.
*Lisa Cameron is the Scottish National Party MP for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow and chair of the All-party Group for Textiles and Fashion.