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UK Garment Sector Rife with Exploitation, Illegal Low Pay

Two decades after the minimum wage was supposed to curtail exploitation, the British garment industry remains a hotbed of worker abuse and underpayment, House of Commons lawmakers said on Friday.

In the six tax years between 2012 to 2018, clothing manufacturers were forced to dole out 87,158 pounds ($114,700) in arrears to 126 workers following investigations from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), the British tax authority.

Nearly half the arrears identified—42,787 pounds worth—were identified in the 2017-18 tax year alone, noted the organization, which presented the figures as evidence in the final session of the Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC) examination into the social and ecological impact of disposable “fast fashion” in the United Kingdom.

The committee had further been told that 14 investigations into underpayment are still underway.

Minister of Parliament Mary Creagh, who chairs the EAC, said the data reveals that exploitation in the industry remains “rife.”

“‘Made in the U.K.’ should mean workers are paid at least the minimum wage,” she in a statement. “It has been 20 years since the introduction of the minimum wage, but in our inquiry we heard that underpayment is rife and goes hand in hand with a culture of fear and intimidation.”

Creagh has been heading the inquiry into the sustainability of Britain’s fashion industry, which employs nearly 900,000 people and brought in 32 billion pounds ($41.7 billion) to the British economy in 2017, according to the British Fashion Council. In November, ministers grilled the bosses of Asos, Boohoo, Burberry, Primark, Marks & Spencer and Topshop on how they could justify selling T-shirts for 2 pounds (90 cents) and dresses for 5 pounds ($6.36).

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HMRC’s data, Creagh said, adds another layer to the “scandalous and growing evidence” of workers being “criminally underpaid” in the United Kingdom, where a lack of stiff action on abuse gives factories the view that non-compliance is a “risk worth taking.”

“This must stop,” Creagh added. “We need government action to end these 19th-century practices in 21st-century Britain.”

Most Britons would pay more for clothes if it meant factory workers received fairer wages, though they’re leery of the ethical promises made by brands, an Ipsos MORI poll showed earlier this month.

More than 136,000 people live as modern-day slaves in Britain, according to the Global Slavery Index by the Walk Free Foundation. The nonprofit Unseen says its anti-slavery helpline has fielded more than 10,000 calls and online reports since its inauguration in October 2016, indicating 11,000 possible victims in car washes, salons, building sites, brothels and more.