Who will take ownership of the labor rights infringements in fashion?
Some in the U.K. want it to fall to a “garment trade adjudicator.”
As part of the Fixing Fashion initiative, the U.K. Environmental Audit Committee in a letter dated March 10, put forth its idea for a high-level arbitrator — a so-called “garment trade adjudicator” — to the secretary of state in hopes the role would help “stamp out noncompliance with labor market regulation in the sector.”
“It is abundantly clear that voluntary corporate social responsibility initiatives are not leading to sufficient progress being made,” said EAC chairman, the Rt. Hon. Philip Dunne MP. “Therefore, a compulsory initiative, such as the garment trade adjudicator, should be fully explored and consulted on.”
In the U.S., recent calls for a “fashion czar,” a role that would share similar responsibilities with the garment trade adjudicator, show the global sustainable fashion community wants the industry held to higher account to ensure more environmentally friendly and ethical supply chains.
The EAC believes a garment trade adjudicator is a “far more active approach to the enforcement of national minimum wage regulations across the sector” than the previously suggested “fit to trade” licensing scheme proposed by the British Retail Consortium and 50 others in a letter issued in July 2020. The licensing scheme is designed to replace existing auditing practices, protect workers from forced labor and ensure minimum wage compliance and “create a level playing field for businesses to compete fairly and prevent rogue businesses from undercutting compliant manufacturers.”
“There is some merit to the licensing approach. However, it appears to place responsibility, and cost, solely on suppliers,” said Dunne. “Brands and retailers often wield considerable economic power in comparison to the suppliers they source clothes from. A garment trade adjudicator could help to ensure undue economic pressure is not placed on suppliers to cut corners on pay and conditions. We suspect this would have more effect, more rapidly, than introducing a licensing system on garment suppliers who tend to be smaller entities with less bargaining power than their customers.”
Since the Committee’s Fixing Fashion initiative launched two years ago, it has zeroed in on reforming the U.K. apparel industry, in an age where sustainability is redefining sectors. Last week, the committee pressed for updates in a letter to Boohoo’s chairman.
A “zero-tolerance” approach to the systemic labor rights issues in the U.K.’s garment sector, according to the committee, will offer confidence that workers will be paid properly and brands and retailers don’t dodge responsibility through opaque sub-supplier networks and force majeure clauses, (practices that persist in the Los Angeles garment sector, too, where reformers haven’t let up).
“Only when brands and supply chains know that there is zero tolerance to labor market abuses can we have confidence that workers will be paid properly and have appropriate working conditions,” Dunne said.
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