Local councils around the UK could soon be granted new powers by central government to shut down UK sweatshops in their areas, with fresh evidence revealing that factory workers are not being treated fairly and that working conditions are sub-par.
Harriet Harman, chairman of the Human Rights Committee (HRC), stated that a recent visit to factories in Leicester found that between one-third and three-quarters of employees were paid under the minimum wage or without employment contracts and that they were working in unsafe conditions, the Daily Telegraph reports.
Leicester apparently accounts for a third of the UK's textile manufacturing output. Amid reports that British workers were being paid half the legal minimum wage requirement (£3 an hour) to make clothes for some well-known high street fashion chains, the HRC visited suppliers in the region. The retailers in question claimed that work was sub-contracted out to factories by suppliers without their knowledge, factories that they had in fact blacklisted.
Now, the HRC is testing whether local authorities should be awarded powers to close these factories down in a similar way that a restaurant would be closed down if it was found to breach health and safety regulations. Ms Harman commented: "The industry is supportive of such a move because well-run factories are being undercut by those that use desperately unscrupulous practices."
In January, Channel 4 ran a programme exposing poor working conditions and low wages in Leicester's garment trade, supporting the Ethical Trading Initiative's (ETI’s) serious concerns about this over the last three years. Research from the organisation dating back to 2014 found that there was systemic abuse in Leicester, with a near-complete absence of employment contracts, wages of £3 an hour, occasional gross breaches of health and safety violations, excessive and underreported hours, and limited enforcement of labour regulations and standards.
The ETI was so concerned that it set up a garments working group in Leicester of retailers, unions and non-government organisations. Since 2014, much has been done to make improvements in the region, but the Channel 4 show indicated that more work is required and not enough has changed.
"Leicester is important. It is a major part of the re-emergence of UK garment manufacturing. We know there are good business practices within some parts of the sector, but very low wages and poor working conditions remain, [and] are completely unacceptable and must be addressed," ETI spokeswoman Debbie Coulter commented. "The full force of the law should be applied. Some local factory owners are preying on vulnerable groups, including South Asian women with limited English or undocumented migrant workers."
The ETI is now calling on retailers to look at their costing strategies and work closely with trade unions, as this will improve working conditions and create a safer environment for members of staff. Audits must also be fit for purpose moving forward.
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