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Asos, Boohoo Address Worker Exploitation in Their Supply Chains

Two of Britain’s leading e-tailers are working to dispel notions of worker exploitation in their supply chains.

On Friday, the Boohoo Group-backed Leicester Garment and Textile Workers Trust made its official debut. Its founding mission: to employ “guidance, advocacy and remedy” to tackle “some of the immediate and future needs” of workers in the English manufacturing hub, which came under scrutiny last year after the ultra-fast-fashion conglomerate was accused of fueling wage theft and unsafe working conditions through its purchasing practices.

The Nasty Gal, PrettyLittleThing and Warehouse owner donated 1.1 million pounds ($1.5 million) to jump-start the organization as part of its broader Agenda for Change, the e-tailer’s charm offensive aimed at overhauling its business practices, which an independent review dinged last September for “weak corporate governance” and a “focus on revenue generation” at the expense of the rights of workers. Since then, Boohoo Group has published a global list of its suppliers, joined the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, ramped up its auditing system and tied executive bonuses to environmental, social and governance targets, though criticisms about its failure to ring-fence labor costs or create less disposable clothing still abound.

The trust will kick off by commissioning the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab, the world’s largest group of modern slavery researchers, to compile a “timely and relevant body of evidence” that will help it identify the focus of its efforts, both directly and through grant endowment. The results of the research will be published in early 2022, at which point the scope of the trust will be elaborated upon.

“We’re really excited to inform the work of the Leicester Garment and Textile Workers Trust and hope that many workers, businesses and community partners will take part in this important research, to help improve the wellbeing of workers and their families, and build a city that is sustainably resilient against labor exploitation,” Alison Gardner, associate director of the Rights Lab, said in a statement.

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The Leicester Garment and Textile Workers Trust’s board includes Tim Nelson, CEO of the nonprofit Hope for Justice; David Lindley, deputy lieutenant for Leicestershire; Luis Fonseca from the Leicester City Council; and Cheryl Chung, head of corporate affairs at Boohoo Group. Kevin McKeever, founder and director of Lowick Group, a communications consultancy that specializes in reputational and political risk, serves as chairman.

“Our aim is to work with workers, industry, public and private stakeholders and those groups already active on the ground in the city, building on the robust evidence base being provided by the work of Nottingham University’s Rights Lab to improve the sector for all,” McKeever said.

‘Same level of rights’

To mark Anti-Slavery Day on Monday, Boohoo Group rival Asos revealed it was pouring new funds into Anti-Slavery International to support the Migrant Resource Centre (MRC) in Mauritius. The investment, the e-commerce giant said, will allow Anti-Slavery International to continue to advise, train and oversee the MRC’s staff.

“We’re proud of the work we’re doing with our partners to make our industry better—but there’s always more to do, more voices to listen to, and new ways to empower the people behind our clothes,” Simon Platts, responsible sourcing director at Asos, said in a statement. “Migrant workers are at high risk of exploitation so the MRC addresses these vulnerabilities to ensure they can access the same level of rights and protection as all other workers. We’re incredibly grateful to be continuing this vital work…so that we keep ensuring our clothes are made with consideration to workers and their rights, and that they drive change across the fashion industry.”

Asos helped establish the MRC in 2019 in collaboration with the Modern Slavery Innovation Fund of the U.K. Home Office, IndustriALL Global Union and local trade union Confederation des Travailleurs des Secteurs Publique et Prive (CTSP). The e-tailer had worked with the latter two organizations to rescue 180 workers, more than half of them migrants from Bangladesh, following the closure of a garment factory that left them stranded without pay, food or adequate shelter.

Migrant workers who seek employment overseas, Platts noted at the time, are especially vulnerable to debt bondage, inferior employment terms, restrictive immigration policies and workplace exploitation. Over the past two years, the MRC has provided migrant workers with advice and access to remedy. Since last February, more than 130 cases, featuring multiple workers from the garment and manufacturing sectors, have been referred to the center for “processing and resolution.” While the organization also works to improve engagement with the Mauritian government, it acknowledges that it cannot defeat modern slavery alone.

“The Migrant Resource Centre has been instrumental in giving migrant workers a route in Mauritius to raise grievances and access remedy, targeting modern slavery risks before they escalate,” said Ryna Sherazi, head of fundraising and communications at Anti-Slavery International. “But to be successful long term, all companies operating in Mauritius must support their workers to join unions and collectively bargain.”

“Fashion companies around the world should use their purchasing power to call for respect of freedom of association, particularly for migrant workers. Supporting worker-driven monitoring models and independent and democratic unions is key to preventing modern slavery,” Sherazi added.