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Marks & Spencer Restarts Dormant Women’s Equality Initiative

The United Kingdom’s biggest clothing retailer is thawing out a gender-equality initiative in India after Covid-19 restrictions put it on ice for two years.

In a statement that was first reported by Ecotextile News and then obtained by Sourcing Journal, Marks & Spencer said that it will resume Providing Opportunities to Women for Equal Rights, better known by its acronym POWER, which it piloted in 2016 to train workers about gender discrimination and creating safe workplaces for women in the South Asian nation.

Supported by the British High Commission and Change Alliance, and scaled up with the aid of the Apparel Textile and Design Centre and the Apparel, Made-Ups & Home Furnishing Sector Skill Council, the program has to date trained more than 36,400 women in the cities of Bengaluru, Gurugram and Manesar, creating not only “far-reaching impacts” for the workers but also their households and communities, according to Marks & Spencer. The next phase of the project will cover 15 factories and at least 1,500 workers and 14 peer trainers, the retailer said.

“As the U.K.’s biggest clothing retailer we know we have an important part to play in promoting gender equality in our supply chain,” said Fiona Marsden, ethical trading manager at Marks & Spencer. “Since 2016, the POWER program has been tackling a number of important issues and encouraging women to lead and we’re pleased the next phase of the project is kicking off in line with International Women’s Day.”

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The pandemic has exacerbated gender-based violence and harassment in countries like India, according to the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting living wages in the garment supply chain. As work pressures have increased, so too has the use of sexual abuse on the factory floor as a disciplinary tool, it said. Long working hours and forced unpaid overtime have also caused friction in families, intensifying instances of domestic violence.

Marks & Spencer’s announcement is part of a broader campaign to fete the “incredible women who design, make, sell and buy our products” throughout the month of March as it celebrates not only International Women’s Day but also Mother’s Day and Women’s History Month. Roughly 70 percent of its customers and 75 percent of its colleagues are women, it said.

On Thursday, the department store chain revealed that it has suspended shipments to its Turkish franchisee’s Russian business in light of the “unfolding humanitarian crisis” following the Kremlin’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. In response to the mounting outflow of refugees, which has surpassed 2 million, Marks & Spencer is donating a 1.5 million-pound ($1.97 million) package to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and UNICEF, including $1 million in funds and 20,000 units of coats and thermals for families.

Boohoo invests in next-gen talent

Meanwhile, a rival to Marks & Spencer recently invested in up-and-coming talent.

Boohoo Group launched an apprenticeship program focused on growing the U.K.’s manufacturing sector.

The fast-fashion company announced a partnership with non-profit social enterprise group Fashion-Enter. The Nasty Gal, PrettyLittleThing and Warehouse owner will donate 85,000 pounds (about $115,000) to foster the growth of the next generation of textile and apparel producers. Young people interested in developing industry expertise can now apply to take part in the program, which takes place at Fashion-Enter’s new Fashion Technology Academy.

Through the project, Boohoo aims to cultivate a new talent base that will ultimately contribute to the rise of production operations across the nation. “As a major U.K. employer, the group pays a significant apprenticeship levy and wanted to use this not just to empower its own employees, but those within the wider supply chain who might otherwise not have access to these kind of training courses and opportunities,” it said in a statement.

Fashion-Enter’s role will center on providing training and arranging placements for students on Boohoo’s behalf, with a special focus on underserved communities within the Leicestershire area, where the firm’s new factory is located and where many of its suppliers are based. According to the company, the initiative is just one of a number of projects aimed at supporting the “rapid pace of change” in the fashion sector.

Boohoo also intends to offer skillset training to U.K. garment workers both inside and outside of its operations, as well as educational programming that will help them understand their rights, it said. The company’s Thurmaston Lane site will serve as a venue to teach local business owners about improving operational and production efficiencies to ensure the longevity and sustainability of their ventures.

“We are delighted to be partnering with Fashion-Enter and to be able to utilize some of our apprenticeship levy outside of the business to create opportunities for individuals who might otherwise not have had access,” Andrew Reaney, Boohoo’s director of responsible sourcing and product operations, said. The organization has a long-standing partnership with area suppliers, he added, and “activities like this cement our commitment to both them and U.K. manufacturing in general.”

Fashion-Enter CEO Jenny Holloway said that the funding from Boohoo will “now create higher-level skills and engage in jobs with the local factories.”

“We have already received an inquiry from one company requesting 10 sewing apprentices,” she added. Applicants are eligible to apply for courses in fashion studio assistance or product technologist work through the organization’s website.

The apprenticeship program represents just one facet of Boohoo’s effort to overhaul its public image, which has been marred by longstanding allegations that it pays sub-par wages and fosters poor working conditions. In October, it launched the Leicester Garment and Textile Workers Trust, a program aimed at remedying these ills in the city, and creating “positive and lasting change for the benefit of the wider industry.” Boohoo has donated 1.1 million pounds (around $1.4 million) to the cause, and enhanced its auditing process and published a list of global suppliers to increase transparency—though not before it severed ties with 400 of those partners.