Online retailer Boohoo 'not aware' of any investigation after slave labour allegations

Tuesday, 2nd March 2021, 3:07 pm
Updated Tuesday, 2nd March 2021, 3:07 pm
Boohoo has said that it is not aware of any investigations being carried out by US Customs and Border Protection (Photo: Shutterstock)

Online fashion retailer Boohoo has stated that it is “not aware of any investigation” being undertaken by US Customs and Border Protection, following reports that it could face a US import ban over labour abuse allegations.

Boohoo told investors in a stock market announcement that it is confident with the actions it has taken to ensure that its products pass US customs criteria, amid a crackdown on items made using forced labour.

‘Not aware of any investigation’

In a statement, Boohoo said: “The group has not received any correspondence from, nor is it aware of any investigation by, US Customs and Border Protection.

“Over the past eight months the group has been working closely with UK enforcement bodies.

“If the group were to discover any suggestion of modern-day slavery, it would immediately disclose this to the relvant authorities.

“We are confident in the actions that we are taking to ensure that all of our products meet and exceed the CBP (US Customers and Border Protection) criteria on preventing the product of forced labour entering the US (or any of our markets).

“The group continues to make excellent progress as it works to implement the Review’s recommendations and improve our supply chain in Leicester.”

‘Compelling evidence of forced labour’

The statement comes after Sky News exclusively reported that the online retailer, and many of its suppliers, is facing the possibility of a United States import ban due to allegations over the use of slave labour.

According to Sky News, US Customs and Border Protection has “seen enough evidence to launch an investigation” following petitions from a campaigning British lawyer.

Duncan Jepson, who runs Liberty shared, a campaign group against modern-day slavery, claims that Boohoo is not doing enough to stop forced labour occurring in the Leicester factories which manufactures much of its clothing.

Jepson said: “The evidence of Boohoo and forced labour is quite compelling. I think it will be a wake up call for British institutions about how they’re handling modern slavery enforced labour, particularly in a community like Leicester East.

“What we’d all like, those of us interested in improving labour conditions, is for Boohoo to really get to grips with governance of their supply chain to ensure there is no wage theft and people have proper contracts.

“It must look at all 11 indications the International Labour Organisation sets out for forced labour and see there is compliance with those.”

‘Cannot benefit from forced labour’

Former anti-slavery commissioner in the UK, Kevin Hyland, said: “If they do identify this in the supply chain in Leicestershire, the potential sanctions to not trade in the US are enormous.

“The aim of the petitions is very clear, that companies which think they can benefit from forced labour and the exploitation of others are shown that they cannot and will face a sanction that they can’t trade in the world’s largest economy.

“But what it will do as well is create a gap for good businesses to come in and pay people properly.”

Illegal wages

In July of 2020, an undercover Sunday Times investigation found that workers in Leicester making clothes for Boohoo were being paid illegally low wages.

The report stated that an undercover journalist who worked at the factory for two days was told to only expect pay of just £3.50 per hour, which is well below the UK minimum wage of £8.72 for workers aged 25 and over.

The clothes being made in the factory were reportedly under the Nasty Gal label, which was bought by Boohoo in 2018.

At the time, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that he had “quite significant concerns” about the factory following the reports, stating that “very significant fines” can be handed out, or businesses shut down, if employment laws and government workplace safety guidance is found to have been breached.

‘Allegations of poor working conditions substantially true’

To investigate the claims, the Government set up a multi-agency task force, including the National Crime Agency.

In response to this, Boohoo asked lawyer Alison Levitt QC to review the working practices of its clothing manufacturers - Levitt produced a report which found the allegations of poor working conditions “substantially true”.

Levitt said in her report: “I am satisfied that the allegations about poor working conditions and low rates of pay in many Leicester factories are not merely well-founded by substantially true.

“Boohoo’s monitoring of its Leicester supply chain was inadequate and this was attributable to weak corporate governance. From (at the very latest) December 2019, senior Boohoo Directors knew for a fact that there were very serious issues about the treatment of factory workers in Leicester and whilst it put in place a programme intended to remedy this, it did not move quickly enough.”