The U.K.’s apparel sector may provide a host of benefits, but retailers, including Asos and New Look, feel that the nation isn’t doing enough to protect garment workers.
On Aug. 19, Asos chief executive Nick Beighton and New Look CEO Anders Kristiansen, teamed up to advocate for better labor laws in Leicester, which is home to a third of the U.K.’s domestic sector, The Telegraph reported. Both fashion retailers said they aim to produce more apparel in the U.K., but are hesitant because of hazardous factory conditions and unfair wages.
Kristiansen said New Look could easily double its orders from Leicester factories, but refused to due to the unsafe environment and unethical practices there. In 2014, the company used 118 U.K. factories and over the past three years, has trimmed that number down to 12 following failed inspections.
“It is a ticking time bomb,” Kristiansen told the paper. He added, “Many of these factories have unsafe conditions with fire escapes blocked up, workers exploited and paid far below minimum wage. What happens if there is another massive fire, what will it take for people to wake up?”
Beighton also said Leicester could be a prime spot for domestic manufacturing and Asos would like to source more apparel—if the area were to improve its compliance efforts.
“Our goal is to bring customers the best fashion as quickly as possible, and there’s nothing faster than manufacturing in the U.K.,” Beighton said. “We would like to triple the amount of product we source from the U.K. over the next five years and based on our experience there are great factories in Leicester with the capacity to help us make that happen.”
The chief executives arranged a meeting in October with Leicester mayor Peter Soulsby, the country’s customs authority, police and the city’s fire brigade to call for stricter enforcement of current labor laws. Even though the government has pressed for the closure of noncompliant factories, both executives are still concerned by the lack of progress on labor efforts.
[Read more about safety concerns in the industry: Fire Safety Isn’t a Bangladesh Problem, It’s a Global Problem]
“We have worked so hard to improve manufacturing standards in Asia and there are these conditions happening at home. There are already laws that should be preventing this, they just need to be enforced,” Kristiansen said. “We are saying, if you enforce the laws, we will invest.”
This isn’t the first time the U.K. apparel sector is under scrutiny either.
In January, Dispatches, a British television show, discovered that Leicester garment workers were paid as little as $3.86 an hour, which was less than half the nation’s minimum wage. In the program, an undercover reporter accepted positions at Fashion Square Ltd., United Creations and another factory, which supply apparel to Boohoo, New Look and River Island. At each factory, he was only paid between $3.86 and $4.51 hourly and was told the wage was determined by how much the factory could “compete with China and Bangladesh.”
Following this incident, New Look and River Island responded and de-listed factories involved. Boohoo said it wasn’t aware that their supplier was working with United Creations and issued a compliance check on the facility. Missguided also conducted an internal investigation of United Creations, stating, “we take the allegations very seriously and demand the highest standards of safety, working conditions and pay from all of our suppliers and subcontractors.”