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OPINION: Boohoo buying Debenhams is an affront to garment workers’ rights

by Meg Lewis | Labour Behind The Label
Tuesday, 26 January 2021 08:52 GMT

Debenhams logo is seen on smartphone in front of a displayed Boohoo logo in this illustration taken January 25, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As Boohoo's fast fashion model has been shown to encourage low wages and exploitation, this could be disastrous for workers

Meg Lewis is Campaigns Manager at Labour Behind the Label, a group that works to improve conditions and empower workers in the global garment industry.

The news that Boohoo has bought Debenhams for £55 million indicates a broken industry and should serve as a stark warning to all of us over the future of workers rights in the garment sector.

In June 2020, Labour Behind the Label published a report detailing poor conditions in Boohoo’s UK supply chain in Leicester, including illegally low wages and reported cases of forced labour. Furthermore, whilst COVID-19 was ravaging the country, Boohoo paid scant regard towards workers’ health and safety. Instead of scaling back production to allow for social distancing in factories, temporary factory closures and shielding workers, Boohoo instead seized a business opportunity, increasing orders, boosting production, and putting workers at risk of infection.  The report shattered any illusion that Boohoo’s ultra-cheap clothing does not entail worker exploitation.

Alarmingly then, it is against this backdrop that Boohoo has emerged as a winner of the pandemic. In September, Boohoo’s first-half profit was up by 51% and pre-tax profits rocketed to £68.1 million.  Boohoo’s executives have made no secret of their success over the past year, jetting off to lavish meetings and parties in Dubai whilst the UK is in lockdown. Debenhams is just the latest in a growing list of acquisitions to its portfolio of brands. Relentlessly chasing profit, Boohoo has already snapped up Oasis and Warehouse as the brands failed to stay afloat during the first lockdown.

Despite their rocketing profits, Boohoo have still not addressed a lack of compensation for workers who produced their clothes for less than half the minimum wage in the UK. Their supply chain is still cloaked in secrecy, and they have not committed to the Transparency Pledge or published a list of suppliers and factories where their clothes are made. This lack of transparency suggests there are aspects of their supply chain that they still want to remain hidden. Instead of focusing on these issues, Boohoo has been eyeing up new business opportunities, with the aim to, in the words of its executive chairman, Mahmud Kamani, “create the UK’s largest marketplace”.

It is alarming that Boohoo will now be responsible for bigger garment sector supply chains, particularly as one of the key reflections on Boohoos failures in QC Alison Levitt’s independent review was that their corporate governance structures had not kept pace with the rate of its growth. By choosing to expand their business before strengthening their own supply chain governance and compensating workers, Boohoo is implying that labour rights are still low on their list of priorities.

Boohoo has shown ineptitude or indifference to labour rights issues in its own supply chain, yet the acquisition of Debenhams raises more concerns over workers’ rights violations. At the end of a year marred by the pandemic and global lockdowns, workers in Debenhams’ supply chain are already suffering.  In April, employees in Debenham’s Bangladesh office were told that their contracts would be terminated. The employees claim this contravenes national legislation and that they were not paid wages, bonuses, or severance. At a factory in Bangladesh, protesting workers are demanding their wages and arrears over several months. Whilst media reports show that workers who made clothes for Debenhams in Cambodia are struggling to survive after at least two factories suspended operations and failed to pay workers’ wages or severance.

As big brands like Debenhams and Boohoo draw up and sign deals and contracts, who will step up and take responsibility for remediating workers rights violations in both supply chains? Unless action is taken, Boohoo’s growth and current model may further erode garment workers’ rights. With the acquisition of several brands Boohoo is quickly strengthening its power as a buyer and will hold greater clout in purchasing negotiations.  As their ultra-fast, ultra-cheap model has been shown to encourage sub-contracting, low wages and exploitation in the industry, this could be disastrous for workers.

Boohoo’s success story paints the ugly reality of the fashion industry, yet too many people are choosing to look the other way. Despite substantiated claims of modern slavery, exploitation and illegally low wages in their supply chain, Boohoo is still emerging as a winner of the pandemic.

Instead of being held responsible, they are rewarded with a greater portfolio of brands, a growing customer base and new celebrity endorsements. Their success is an affront to the garment workers who are still waiting for justice. The time has come for concerted action from all of us to ensure that brands like Boohoo operating in the way they do can no longer profit from the exploitation of workers. The government is overdue in introducing legislation to prevent brands from overlooking and dismissing violations of workers rights in their own supply chains. Now, more than ever, consumers, celebrity endorsers and investors must step up and show solidarity with garment workers by demanding that brands like Boohoo take their obligations to workers seriously.

In response to the opinion piece, a Boohoo spokesman provided the following statement:

"We have acknowledged that our supply chain governance has previously fallen short of what is required. That is why we commissioned Alison Levitt QC to review our practices and published Ms Levitt’s report in full. We have since appointed Sir Brian Leveson PC to oversee the implementation of our ‘Agenda for Change’ programme which commits us to delivering all of Ms Levitt’s recommendations, including publishing our entire UK supply chain in March 2021 and our global supply chain by September 2021.

We have also appointed an additional Non-Executive Director and established a new Supply Chain Committee, led by our CEO and reporting directly to the board. We have also appointed a new Director of Responsible Sourcing, a new Head of Compliance, a new Head of Ethical Sourcing, a new Head of Sustainability and a new Head of Purchasing Operations.

We are committed to ensuring people working in our supply chain have their rights protected and over the last few months, we have terminated 64 suppliers who failed to meet our standards and we expect further consolidation over the coming weeks.”  

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