LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The British fashion sector is rife with exploitation and underpayment 20 years after the minimum wage was supposed to have curbed worker abuse, lawmakers said on Friday.
Textile firms were forced to make payments for unpaid wages totaling 87,158 pounds ($113,645) to 126 workers between 2012 and 2018 following probes by the tax authority.
Details of the payouts show old habits die hard at some fashion factories, said the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).
“‘Made in the UK’ should mean workers are paid at least the minimum wage,” said committee chair Mary Creagh in a statement.
“It has been 20 years since the introduction of the minimum wage, but in our inquiry we heard that underpayment is rife and goes hand in hand with a culture of fear and intimidation.”
The advent of fast fashion, with consumers forever buying and chucking cheap clothes, has exacerbated the risk of forced labor in global supply chains as factories come under ever greater pressure from leading brands, activists say.
Lawmakers are holding an inquiry into the sustainability of the British industry, with Creagh saying a lack of tough action on abuse means some factories see it as “a risk worth taking”.
The fashion industry supports nearly 900,000 jobs and contributed 32 billion pounds ($41.70 billion) to the British economy in 2017, according to the industry body the British Fashion Council, though much manufacturing takes place abroad.
Media reports say some textile workers are paid as little as 3.50 pounds ($4.56) an hour, less than half the minimum wage.
A total of 126 textile workers received payments totaling 87,158 pounds ($113,645) between 2012 and 2018, according to a letter sent to the committee from the HMRC tax authority.
The letter said that 93 investigations had been opened into textile firms over the period; 24 had unearthed underpayment.
“We know that there is a high risk of abuse and exploitation in the garment sector,” Caroline Robinson, chief executive of the charity Focus on Labor Exploitation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“This evidence of relatively small sums recovered for workers over a six-year period also shows that only the minority of cases are currently uncovered.”
She said garment producers should be licensed to prevent modern slavery, and more funding set aside for inspections.
Most Britons would pay more for clothes if factory workers got fairer wages but lack trust in the ethical pledges made by brands, according to an opinion poll earlier this month.
An estimated 136,000 people are living as modern-day slaves in Britain, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, with forced labor suspected on building sites, nail bars, car washes, factories and farms.
Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org