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LONDON – UK Ministers have been accused of failing to get to grips with rampant worker rights abuses in garment supply chains in Leicester, United Kingdom. In an extraordinary encounter during the latest evidence gathering session of the Environmental Audit Committee’s investigation into the UK fashion industry, Minister Kelly Tolhurst continually rebuffed basic questions about the scale and nature of ongoing investigations into the Leicester garment sector. A number of reports from Leicester, the UK’s largest garment manufacturing hub, have highlighted rampant non-payment of the National Minimum Wage and unsafe working conditions, including the bolting of emergency escape exits in garment factories.

The Environmental Audit Committee questioned Ministers and officials from the Home Office, Defra, BEIS, and HMRC. Kelly Tolhurst, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said investigations in Leicester are ongoing in conjunction with HMRC.

Our own enquires into the issues in Leicester, which is home to around 700 garment factories supplying to the likes of Boohoo, Missguided and Asos, is that underpayment of the National Minimum Wage is rampant, while suppliers complain regularly that they are being squeezed too hard to pay the minimum wage. There have also been claims of auditors being physically attacked when turning up at factories.

However, enforcement of National Minimum Wage laws is clearly a chronic problem. Mary Creagh, chair of the UK parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, said: “It’s clear that modern slavery is happening in plain sight and potentially in garment factories in the UK. There is an incentive not to pay minimum wage because the chances of getting caught are infinitesimally small.”

Committee members also said during the debate that insufficient action was being taken against those committing labour abuses in Britain. There have been just 14 prosecutions for non-payment of the minimum wage since 1999, the hearing heard, with checks on factories rare and fines for those underpaying workers often only a few hundred pounds.

Apparel Insider will be carrying an exclusive interview with Mary Creagh in the new year.

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