UK fashion retailers and law enforcement agencies to partner on tackling modern slavery

Some of the UK's largest fashion retailers, including John Lewis and Marks & Spencer (M&S), have committed to work with law enforcement bodies to help identify and act on cases of modern slavery in the textiles industry.

Orchestrated by the UK Government’s Modern Slavery Taskforce, a new commitment will see six major UK retailers work with the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) and other law enforcement agencies to eradicate criminality from textile supply chains and support hidden victims of human rights abuses.

The new signatories committing to the agreement are John Lewis, M&S, New Look, Next, River Island and Shop Direct.

Prime Minister Theresa May said: “As global leaders in the fight against modern slavery, I am clear that this will not be tolerated in the UK – and our consumers won’t stand for it either. I welcome the action being taken by businesses which are leading the way in being open and transparent about the modern slavery risks they face and have pledged to raise awareness to prevent slavery, protect vulnerable workers and help bring more criminals to justice.

“But with Modern Slavery police operations at an all-time high, clearly there is more to do to stamp out this vile crime and prevent criminal groups from operating in the shadows of supply chains to exploit people for commercial gain.”

As methods and awareness to report of potential cases of modern slavery become more harmonised, the number of offences reported has reached an all-time high. In September alone, more than 920 live investigations were carried out in the UK, involving more than 2,000 victims of modern slavery and human rights abuses.

Acting on it

The Global Slavery Index estimates that 45.8 million people across 167 countries are working in conditions defined as modern slavery. The UK Government estimates that around 13,000 people in Britain are living in modern slavery today.

The UK Government has claimed that modern slavery costs the national economy around £4.3bn annually, with external reports noting that UK imports more than £13.7bn of “at-risk” goods, likely to have been produced through forced labour annually.

For the fashion sector, businesses have been stung be various high-profile scandals in recent years; from Zara and ASOS linked to sourcing viscose from factories which dumped toxic waste in rivers, to the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,000 people.

Moreover, modern slavery in fashion supply chains has long been a concern for the industry, with one BBC expose recently revealing that Syrian refugees earning as little as £1 per hour were working in third-party suppliers in Turkey, linked to a number of high-profile fashion retailers.

Business in the UK with a turnover of more than £36m are already legally required to publish Modern Slavery Statements, that set out the steps being taken to stop forced labour practices if found in their business and supply chain.

The Modern Slavery Act is now three years old, and to coincide with Anti-Slavery Day last month, the Home Office wrote to 17,000 chief executives to remind them of business responsibilities to the Act.

Matt Mace

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