We have been invited to reply to a questionnaire as part of the public call for evidence relating to the Levitt QC Review of the boohoo Group’s Leicester Supply Chain. We have decided to decline to respond to this invitation.
The problems that have been reported in Leicester are not new; they have existed in the UK garment sector for decades. ETI first published a report (produced by the University of Leicester) detailing these issues in 2015. This detailed systemic abuse, with wages as low as £3 an hour, an almost complete absence of employment contracts, excessive and underreported hours, sometimes gross health and safety violations and limited enforcement of labour regulations and standards.
These abuses have not disappeared, as evidenced by last year’s report by the Environmental Audit Committee. And now it would appear that they have been exacerbated by Covid-19, as evidenced in the findings of a recent report from Labour Behind the Label which ETI believes to be an accurate summary of the challenges facing the industry.
The volume of production undertaken in Leicester makes it the centre of public attention at the moment, but it is important to remember that other cities in the UK also have similar, albeit better hidden, challenges.
Tackling these challenges through a questionnaire focusing upon individual factories and incidents in one city is not the best way to take forward a full investigation into these matters. This is a supply chain issue that begins with corporate business practices around purchasing and costing, but includes workplace & community exploitation and in this scenario it is often the workers that suffer as businesses avoid taking responsibility.
We are working with responsible business members to eradicate these issues throughout their businesses and supply chains in a meaningful and long-lasting manner, but this does mean making significant changes to existing practices. One of those changes will mean assessing whether the price paid for a low-cost item feeds modern slavery. So far, we have not seen a willingness from boohoo to engage in this process.
We have made the decision not to respond to this questionnaire for a number of reasons. Firstly, we do not believe that an enquiry commissioned by boohoo and paid for by boohoo can be fully independent. We would expect a wide number of stakeholders who understand the complexities of the UK garment industry to be involved in a truly independent enquiry. Many of those stakeholders have been working for some time to develop positive changes to the industry.
Secondly, the narrow questions in the survey appear to be designed to focus us on individual factories and suppliers, rather than looking at the business practices that feed this environment. We are concerned that no reference is made to the responsibilities of business set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human rights which look at the broader influence of a business than just its legal obligations.
Thirdly, there is no mention of the other locations where boohoo face criticism, such as Burnley.
And finally, while we would expect to see transparency with the findings and any final report in the public domain, we would be concerned if names of individuals or workplaces were disclosed in an environment where people regularly talk about being ruled by fear.
We believe improvement is possible, but are unconvinced that this enquiry will make the required contribution to the wider dialogue needed. ETI is working with many organisations across the sector to bring about long-lasting changes to the UK garment sector, but that will necessitate brands - like boohoo - changing their business practices.