Who Made The Clothes You’re Wearing?
Do Boots, M&S, Primark, John Lewis or Morrisons Use Slave Labour?
You need to buy some new pyjamas, but you’re short of cash—is it okay to buy some from the cheapest shop in the high street?
It’s daft to pay more than you have to for clothes, there’s no reason not to buy jeans from the cheapest shop available—do you agree?
It’s wrong to waste money, you have a duty to spend your cash wisely—do you agree?
All people are equal, no matter what their skin colour—do you agree?
The lives of all people matter, not just people in America or Europe, but all lives in the world: no one should be forced to work in terrible conditions, slavery is wrong—do you agree?
Please answer the quick quiz above.
If you answered “yes” to all of the questions, you might have a problem. Most of us would agree that child labour is wrong, that people who are forced into debt and then not able to leave an abusive employer is wrong, that people working excessive hours, not allowed to use the washroom, not paid enough to cover their rent, is wrong. And yet, if we don’t actually see those things, they can be ignored. It is all too easy for us to benefit from those situations, and by doing so, to perpetuate their existence.
I doubt you would go to a dirty shack, and see children being forced to work long hours, and feel comfortable buying your clothes there because they are cheap. But if we never look at where the clothes in our shops come from, this is exactly what we are doing.
So, what we can we do to ensure we don’t keep the slave trade profitable? Well, it’s not easy! The shop you enter may have an excellent record as an employer, the people who work in their overseas factory may be treated fairly, but the farm where the cotton is produced might use child labour or debt-bound workers. It’s not simply the shop, the whole supply chain matters, and discovering what happens further up the chain is a challenge.
But there are a few things that help. For example, did you know that in 2015 the Modern Slavery Act was passed in the UK Parliament? This means that every business that has a turnover of £36 million has to have a public slavery policy. The policies are there, you will find them for every high street shop, sitting on their website, waiting for you to read them. They do not make for very exciting reading, so I thought I would read a few, and give you the highlights. I am not a lawyer, I may have misinterpreted what some of them say, but this is my understanding of how a few shops deal with slavery. I looked at Boots, M&S, H&M, Primark, John Lewis (which includes Waitrose) and Morrisons. Take a deep breath, and wade through some policies with me:
This is what got me started on the topic! There I was, paying for an online order, when I happened to notice they had a slavery policy sitting on their home page. I clicked it open, and started to read. They talked about checking their supply chain, having “zero tolerance” for slave labour. I was impressed. Their policy states they do regular audits, which I assume means someone actually goes and checks how their raw ingredients are produced. It seemed clear and encouraging. Well done Boots.
I wanted to know how one of my favourite shops fared (I am of that age). Could I comfortably still buy gifts of baby clothes, a blouse for my mum, a delicious sandwich? Again, it all looked fine. It was easy enough to find their slavery policy, and they used clear language, it was easy to understand what they’re doing. They check their supply chain, and take responsibility for everyone linked to their stores. This even includes the people who wash cars in their car parks—the shop tried to ensure the car wash bosses weren’t forcing illegal immigrants to work for very low wages, were unable to verify this, and so now will only offer car-washing licences to businesses where they are sure the workers are treated fairly.
I was interested to read they also have their 2019/20 policy in place (some shops seem to only have a 2019 one available—though it’s been a weird year, perhaps it’s understandable).
As part of due diligence, M&S identify which countries are most at risk in terms of unfair working conditions for their supply chain. They audit these in person: a person actually goes and checks what the conditions are. They admit it is challenging, especially as they go further down the supply chain, to find how the cotton they use in their factories is grown, how it is transported. However, they do seem to be trying. They ask for anonymous feedback, in workers’ own dialect, to check standards are being maintained. They are also part of a charity, which seeks to identify and help workers who are being abused.
I feel comfortable to continue shopping in M&S.
Finding the slavery policy for H&M was more of a challenge. They have various policies, and it was sometimes unclear which one I was reading, as they tended to cross-reference. There were links to other articles, and the links didn’t seem related. They used long sentences with vague language, so sometimes I read to the end of a page and had no idea what it had said. They also wrote in general terms:
“We do recognise that the risk of modern slavery exists, in various ways, in all countries and sectors and across value chains, and therefore it is relevant for any company to understand and address this risk in its supply chain as well as its own operations. See our Sustainability Report 2019 for more information about the risks and impacts identified throughout our value chain, and how we address these, as well as full disclosure on our Salient Human Rights issues and related strategies and actions (see chapters Vision and strategy and How we report).” (sic)
I thought all would be made clear when I followed the links to their other reports—they even in one place directed me to page 10 of the report, but there was nothing specific that I could find. What do H&M actually do to ensure that slaves or child labour are not used in their supply chain? I am not entirely sure.
In one report, they say that all their partners need to comply with their ‘Sustainability Commitment and Code of Ethics’ but I was never clear what exactly this entailed. They also say that “only in exceptional cases do we agree to not have these documents signed.” Which I assume means that sometimes their partners might use slaves?
The Modern Slavery Act has been in place since 2015. I think if a company is still talking in non-specifics, is still identifying risk but not actually making firm commitments to not use abused workers, then something is wrong. I do not think I can shop in H&M with a clear conscience.
Now, I have seen several claims in social media that Primark uses slave labour, that it does not audit its supply chain, and that it sells cheap products because its workers are maltreated. When I did an online search for ‘Primark, slavery’ I found lots of articles. However, they were all about 10 years old. I found no evidence after 2008 of Primark using slave labour. Have they improved their practices? I read their slavery policy.
Primark’s slavery policy is easy to find, and runs to many pages—one gets the impression they are keen to display what they have achieved. They have stopped using certain suppliers (no more cotton from Uzbekistan) and have unannounced audits to check for trafficked workers. They say they aim to support and educate the communities in their supply chain. There is some confusion over what constitutes ‘child labour.’ If a country deems a 14-year-old to be an adult, then they might be employed as such. This feels different to me than employing a 10-year-old, it seems like a subjective issue, not one easily resolved.
However, some of their actions are not yet in place. If you read the wording carefully, some principles are planned as future targets. For example, the ability for workers to raise grievances directly with Primark is a pilot scheme planned to be started in the UK in 2020. It is more than 5 years since the slavery act was passed, surely the statement of things that need improvement should have moved on? Surely in 5 years these policies should be being practised.
Primark, like some other shops, do not own the factories they buy from. They state:
“We do not insist that our suppliers use nominated fabric and sundry suppliers, which allows suppliers to remain flexible and cost-effective and enables them to use local sources. Using nominated-only suppliers can increase lead times and prices, especially in developing countries such as Bangladesh where it may mean importing these goods (which in turn increases the environmental impact) and can undermine development of local capacity.”
While this is undoubtedly true, it also means they are avoiding all responsibility for the workers in the supply chain beyond their direct suppliers. It feels like a cop-out to me. They do talk about training their suppliers about the risks of modern slavery. In 2019, members of the South East Asia team attended training—ten of them. Ten people in South East Asia. Just ten. This seems like very few people.
My view is that Primark are making an effort to improve. They have taken criticism seriously, and changed their working methods. However, I feel there are a few dodgy areas, a few statements that are a little bland, a bit too hard to fully understand. My feeling is that whilst they want to lose the ‘slave-worker’ label, they still need to make improvements—which means you and I need to keep asking questions.
The John Lewis slavery policy was easy to find and clearly written. They are aware of potential problems, especially with migrant workers who harvest fruit, and they are making some effort to maintain employment standards by establishing own-brand supply chains (sort of the opposite to Primark).
If they find a problem, they give the supplier two years to improve working conditions, and then if there is no improvement, they stop using this supplier. They allocate ‘risk ratings’ depending on what they find, and increase or decrease the frequency of audits accordingly. This all sounds good.
They state they have “taken the decision to restrict sourcing from countries in which there is a high risk of poor labour practices.” While this will help to eliminate slavery, it also curtails income for some of the poorest countries. I feel that regular audits and education would be a better solution. However, to be fair, they have also signed up to support the Wilberforce Institute for Slavery, and are looking to change some of their practices. (Though again, surely they should be beyond this stage now? Should the good practices not already be in place after 5 years?)
I feel that on the whole, shopping in Waitrose and John Lewis is pretty safe as regards slavery. However, I didn’t feel they were are thorough as M&S, which as the prices are comparable, they should be. (Pricing makes a difference—to monitor the supply chain and ensure good practice throughout is expensive.)
It was easy to find their slavery policy (and it’s illustrated with pretty pictures to make it nicer to read!) They claim to be the only British supermarket to buy directly from farmers and fishermen and process the food through their own manufacturing sites—which should make it easier to keep the supply chain ethical. They have ethical trading policies, and make these available to all their suppliers (would someone employing slave labour read this and change their behaviour?)
The more I read of the Morrisons policy, the longer the sentences and the vaguer the wording. They are linked to lots of other agencies, and talk a lot about assessing risk, and due diligence, but they seem to rely on third parties to actually go and look at the supply chain. They seem to favour committees, which meet regularly—but I couldn’t find evidence that anyone actually went to look at what was happening. They have posters, in various languages, asking workers to tell them of any problems. They say that: they are aware of the risk of slavery in Asian fishing operations, but Morrisons buys so little from them that they have no influence to change this. (I’m not sure that I agree with that.)
There were examples of bad behaviour being stopped by Morrisons in the UK, though this seemed to be through the actions of individuals rather than something the company instigated. My feeling is that Morrisons is keen on committees, and they produce regular updated reports and new policies, and their intentions are good. However, it reminds me of school staff meetings and church business meetings—lots of talk about aims and objectives but very little is ever achieved. As most of their supplies come from low risk areas, I will still shop in Morrisons. But I don’t feel they are doing things like checking who runs the car wash services in the car park, so I would worry about using those services, and I wouldn’t buy clothes made in Asian countries.
I have only looked at a few shops, and I am feeling pretty goggle-eyed! The policies are often vague and give links to other documents, and are far from user-friendly. If more people checked what shops are doing to ensure their supply chains are fair, then perhaps they would be clearer and more proactive. It is a legal requirement to have a modern slavery policy, but my understanding is that there is no penalty if a company doesn’t check its supply chain. The only penalty will be if we, the shoppers, stop buying items that could have been produced by slaves. Do you care enough to bother?
Thanks for reading. If you have further information, please add it to the comments below. If I discover anything new, or can bear to look at more policies I will let you know.
Have a good day—and shop wisely.
Love, Anne x
Next week, I will be writing about reviews: How to get reviews, and what do they signify?