Boohoo is bad, but the Leicester scandal is just the half of it
By now, we all know to say boo you to Boohoo. After news emerged in July of illegally low wages being paid in some of the company’s Leicester-based factories, the brand (and its offshoots Nasty Gal, PrettyLittleThing, and MissPap) was dropped by leading retailers including Next, Asos, and Zalando, causing shares to plummet by 33% in just two days, costing a whopping £335 million for the owners. What’s surprising is not the instance of modern slavery itself, but the fact that Boohoo claimed to be “shocked and appalled” by the situation, despite facing numerous supply chain scandals in the past, with claims dating back to 2017. So, just how bad is Boohoo?
Poor handling of coronavirus
It’s no coincidence that Leicester was the first region in the UK to face a second lockdown, as during the initial nationwide lockdown, many garment factories were forced to operate at full capacity with little to no social distancing and no personal protective equipment. Some workers who believed they were ill with coronavirus or exposed to the disease, were even intimidated into coming to work, being told that if they refused they would not receive sick pay, an impossible option. Considering Boohoo grew by 44% during the first quarter of 2020, it had no excuse not to implement proper pay for its vulnerable workers (though the company still managed to implement a system that could pay bosses a bonus of £150 million). Additionally, since a large portion of garment workers in the UK are non-white, with one third of Leicester workers being born outside of the UK, this also provides a more accurate explanation for why ethnic minorities seem to be worse affected by coronavirus.
While the founders of Boohoo, Mahmud Kamani and Carol Kane, have a combined net worth of $4.3 billion (well over £3 billion), from at least 2017 they have been paying garment workers illegal wages, with £3.50 an hour being the standard in Leicester, while £5 an hour was considered a good wage. Factories supplying Boohoo were also found to be under-reporting hours as of 2018 in order to make pay look better – for example, where someone had worked 40 hours at £4 per hour, this would be recorded as 20 hours for £8 per hour.
While the impulse may be to blame factory owners, the sad fact is that they are often left with no choice by Boohoo who consistently demand lower prices for higher profits, often selling garments for less than £10, with a recent dress being priced on the website at an unethically low £4. Saeed Khilji, Chairman of the Textile Manufacturer Association of Leicestershire, detailed to the Financial Times in 2018 that a garment selling new for around £6-7 would probably be demanded from suppliers at a cost of just £2-2.33 (that’s to pay the workers who made the dress, the factory owner, and additional costs of materials). ‘Boohoo…were out of reach even if they made zero margins,’ he said.
Unsafe working conditions
Along with making illegally low wages, factory workers also have to cope with unsafe working conditions. One Leicester-based supplier of Boohoo was found to have ‘a broken window patched up with a cardboard box…a spaghetti of wires dangl[ing] from the ceiling’, and fabric stacks piled so high that they even warranted a fire risk. Most employees were frightened to go to work, and rightly so; 2013 saw one of the worst disasters in fashion history when a building containing five garment factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed killing over 1,100 people and injuring nearly 2,500 others. Just a day before the collapse, attention was drawn to worrying cracks and infrastructural damage, but the owner assured workers it was safe to return to work, and if they didn’t they wouldn’t receive pay. While it may be easy to place full blame on the owner in this situation, we must take into account the tight, often near-impossible, deadlines suppliers are forced to meet for buyers lest they receive high fines.
Untraced and unethical supply chains
Ultimately, many of the aforementioned issues boil down to unethical supply chain management. In fact, Boohoo is so unethical that they refused to join the Ethical Trading Initiative, an independent organisation that monitors company practices, because they “would be required to publish [their] whole supply chain” (slang for, ‘we don’t know where our products come from’). As we have already seen, their buying practices push prices down to unprofitable amounts for factory owners and workers, a fact that can be largely put down to their weekly meetings with suppliers which have been described as ‘cattle markets’, where price negotiations would be done with multiple suppliers in the room; “say I’m the buyer and [you’ve just given me the price of this [dress] for £5. I will literally hold it up to the next table and say, ‘How much for that?’ and he’ll tell you £4. It’s ruthless,” said journalist Sarah O’Connor in a 2018 investigation.
Following the brand’s recent scandal in Leicester, Boohoo announced that it would be shifting its production overseas; this will not only result in more transport pollution, but also it fails to address the glaring issues within current factories, essentially passing accountability down the supply chain. ‘It is not enough to simply blame unethical factory owners,’ said Unite The Union. ‘Retailers purchasing practices create a race to the bottom culture in the industry through their demand for cheap prices, rapid deliveries and a punitive financial culture which imposes huge fines on producers [for late production].’
No trade unions
According to co-founder, Carol Kane, Boohoo does not recognise trade unions because allegedly there is no worker demand for unionisation. However, this claim was later disproved by the Environmental Audit Committee as they uncovered evidence dating back to 2017 that shows worker interest in union representation – factory workers in Burnley even wrote a letter to the HR Director and Kane herself asking for permission to form a union (strange how she could have missed that one). As of 2019, Boohoo is still refusing to allow workers to discuss representation, and were even explicitly told not to talk to a union member who was visiting a UK factory.
Pathetic environmental policy
Following in the footsteps of greenwashing giant H&M, Boohoo’s sustainability statement is equally misleading – in fact, most of its ‘sustainable’ practices revolve around consumers ‘re-wearing boohoo garms’ and ‘donat[ing] to charity shops when you can’. Not only does this fail to address the larger issue of over-production, it effectively shifts accountability onto shoppers, who are subject to demonization if they fail to donate clothing or don’t have access to a local recycling centre.
Boohoo also claim to be using renewable energy, though their website offers no actual statistics or figures to back this up. In fact, a 2019 report by the Environmental Audit Committee show that the company is doing almost nothing in terms of sustainability actions or policies.
So, there you have it. I’ve probably just confirmed what you already know, but in case you didn’t hear me, BOYCOTT BOOHOO.
Image from: PaintHead's World