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Call for councils to crack down on UK sweatshops

Stuart Spear09/03/2017 - 12:39

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Harriet Harman, chair of the Human Rights Committee
Harriet Harman, chair of the Human Rights Committee

Chair of the parliamentary Human Rights Committee, Harriet Harman MP, has called for councils to have new powers to close down sweatshops that breach health and safety standards.

Ms Harman made the comments following a fact-finding mission last week to factories in Leicester on behalf of her committee investigating poor health and safety standards conditions in the UK garment manufacturing industry.

Following the visit Ms Harman said that her committee was looking into the possibility of councils being able to inspect garment factories and having the powers to close them down if they breach health and safety rules, much in the same way that EHOs close food premises posing a risk to health.

‘The industry is supportive of such a move because all well-run factories are being undercut by those that use desperately unscrupulous practices,’ said Ms Harman.

She warned that between a third and three quarters of workers were being paid below the minimum wage and working in unsafe conditions.

Leicester accounts for around one third of the UK’s textile manufacturing output. The industry has become the focus of attention around poor employment practices following research by the University of Leicester revealing systematic abuses.

The study revealed that workers were being paid as little as £3 and hour, an almost complete absence of employment contracts, excessive and under reported hours along with gross health and safety violations and limited enforcement of labour regulations and standards.

The manufacture of textiles is currently a Health and Safety Executive enforced sector. Leicester Council says that it works through its local enterprise partnership and garment manufacturers in a bid to protect workers but would welcome greater powers.    

Sue Waddington, Leicester’s assistant city mayor responsible for jobs and skills, said: ‘Local authorities do have powers to inspect and close down other premises – for example, fast-food outlets – so we would welcome a change that gave councils similar powers in this area. However, this would have to be backed up with appropriate funding support from central government.’

The scale of the abuses in the garment industry in Leicester were further illustrated in a recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme Undercover: Britain’s CheapClothes.

The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), representing businesses, NGOs and unions that promote ethical trading, has been raising concerns about employment standards, particularly amongst South Asian women and undocumented migrant workers, for a number of years.

The ETI is calling for a pan-agency response including councils, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, HSE and HM Revenue and Customs.

ETI spokesperson Jane Moyo said : ‘The sector has some very bad practice within it that ranges from very low pay to poor health and safety issues and out garment members have come to us because more and more people are sourcing from Leicester.  

‘While Leicester is the major source for garments in the UK there are issue in other areas, like for example north London, because it is all about a trade that relies on semi-skilled workers and often migrant workers so it is preying on vulnerable groups.’

An HSE spokesperson told EHN: ‘The HSE is presently carrying out limited proactive inspection of textile manufacturing companies, where there is evidence to suggest health and safety standards at an individual company are likely to be poor.’

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