Marks & Spencer. Picture: REUTERS
Marks & Spencer. Picture: REUTERS

 Top UK retailers including Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and Next were joining forces with law-enforcement agencies to eradicate labour exploitation and modern slavery in the fashion industry, Britain's antislavery body said on Tuesday.

Six of the country's top fashion brands vowed to raise awareness to stop worker abuses, protect at-risk and exploited employees, and root out modern slavery from their supply chains, according to the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA).

Companies face increasing scrutiny in Britain and beyond to ensure their operations are slave free as rising demand for cheap clothing fuels labour exploitation in factories worldwide.

"Tens of thousands of people are employed in the textiles industry in the UK and it contributes billions of pounds to the economy," said Ian Waterfield, head of operations at the GLAA.

"That alone makes it an attractive proposition for unscrupulous employers and criminals who exploit workers."

About 25-million people are estimated to be trapped in forced labour worldwide, according to the UN.

About 25-million people are estimated to be trapped in forced labour worldwide, according to the UN.

The global fashion industry has come under pressure to change since more than 1,100 garment workers were killed in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh five years ago.

Yet big brands have been criticized for failing to improve conditions in their supply chains - from fields to factories - and allowing or turning a blind eye to abuses such as excessive working hours, child labour and bans on forming trade unions.

None of the six brands - which include New Look, River Island and Shop Direct - responded to requests for comment about the partnership, but the British Retail Consortium (BRC) trade association called it an "important step" to end worker abuses.

The agreement is being backed by Britain's labour inspectorate, tax authority and health and safety and immigration officials, as well as several industry bodies.

Anti-Slavery International welcomed the commitment of the major brands but said the deal highlighted the gaps in Britain's landmark antislavery legislation in effect since 2015.

Britain's Modern Slavery Act requires companies with  turnover of  $46m and more to file annual statements outlining their antislavery efforts. Yet compliance is low as there are no penalties for offenders, according to activists.

"Proactive identification and eradication of exploitative practices shouldn't be a voluntary act but a standard practice sanctioned by the law, " said Klara Skrivankova, UK and Europe manager for charity Anti-Slavery International.

"Only then the businesses that do their part in ending slavery wouldn't be undercut by those which profit from exploitation," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

MPs were due to question leading fashion designers, entrepreneurs and campaigners  on Tuesday as part of the state inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry.

Thomson Reuters Foundation