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RETAILERS should be made legally liable for abuses of workers’ rights in their supply chains, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) demanded yesterday.
The call was sparked by the scandal of textile workers in Leicester being paid as little as £3 an hour to make clothes for fast-fashion retailers such as Boohoo.
The TUC said that parent companies such as the Boohoo Group should be held jointly responsible for subcontractors’ failure to provide safe working conditions, sick pay and at least the minimum wage for workers.
The need for this legal change is even more evident during the coronavirus pandemic, the TUC said, as those who are not entitled to sick pay have felt pressure to work even while they are unwell.
It blamed a “huge gap in the law” for allowing retailers to “wash their hands of responsibility” for the behaviour of subcontractors.
The Low Pay Commission estimates that as many as 420,000 workers do not receive the legal minimum wage to which they are entitled.
In 2019, the TUC estimated that nearly two million employees were not getting the minimum paid leave entitlement they were due, and over a million were not getting any paid leave at all.
The TUC also warned that many workers also miss out on their sick pay entitlements.
But under current law, a subcontracted worker is not able to bring a claim against a parent company.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Unless parent employers are held jointly liable for the actions of their subcontractors, then many supply-chain workers will remain at risk.”
Labour MP for Leicester East Claudia Webbe said she has been “inundated” with reports of workplace exploitation from people in her constituency since she was elected last year.
But the Boohoo Group has denied knowledge of illegal working practices at the factories making its products, according to Commons environmental audit committee chairman Philip Dunne.
The Tory MP has written to the group to dispute its “incredible” claim, saying that it has been well aware of allegations of poor working practices.
Mr Dunne said the issue of exploitation and illegally low wages in Leicester’s garment industry was highlighted in the committee’s 2019 Fixing Fashion report.
He said the committee had also written to the group before its co-founder and then chief executive, Carol Kane, appeared before MPs at a meeting at which poor conditions and illegally low pay in Leicester garment factories were discussed.
Retail workers’ union Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis said that the group had refused to recognise it, and had prevented workers from engaging with its reps.
“While Boohoo markets itself as a modern and fashionable retailer, their attitude towards industrial relations is more Dickensian,” he said.
“The least we expect from an ethical employer is that the staff are able to be fully represented by an independent trade union.”
Boohoo told the Morning Star: “We take extremely seriously all allegations of malpractice, poor working conditions and underpayment of workers.
“The group will not tolerate any incidence of non-compliance with its code of conduct or the mistreatment of workers and will not hesitate to terminate relationships with any supplier who does not comply.
“Our code of conduct includes very clear statements on factory owners paying their staff at least the national minimum wage.
“Where our investigations reveal malpractice or illegalities, we will refer to [the] relevant enforcement agency.”
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