Unsafe working conditions in the heart of Britain’s textiles industry are a “ticking time bomb” preventing the return of manufacturing from offshore, according to two top fashion chief executives.
Nick Beighton, chief executive of Asos, and Anders Kristiansen, who leads New Look, have teamed up to speak out over practices at factories in Leicester, home to a third of the domestic sector.
The fashion rivals are now calling for measures to be introduced to protect workers before they can invest more in the UK.
Both Asos and New Look said they want to do more manufacturing in Britain but are reluctant because of unsafe and often illegal conditions.
Mr Beighton said: “Our goal is to bring customers the best fashion as quickly as possible, and there’s nothing faster than manufacturing in the UK.
“We would like to triple the amount of product we source from the UK over the next five years and based on our experience there are great factories in Leicester with the capacity to help us make that happen. ”
Mr Kristiansen said New Look could double its £35m orders from Leicester factories but was “afraid of using these units because what is going on is just so plainly wrong”.
“It is a ticking time bomb,” he added. “Many of these factories have unsafe conditions with fire escapes blocked up, workers exploited and paid far below minimum wage. What happens if there is another massive fire, what will it take for people to wake up?”
The chief executives have scheduled a meeting in October with Peter Soulsby, Leicester’s mayor, HM Revenue and Customs, police and the fire brigade to call for stricter enforcement of existing laws.
Mr Beighton and Mr Kristiansen have also warned in evidence to the Human Rights Select Committee that a renaissance of British textile manufacturing could be “fatally derailed” by dangerous working practices and “sweatshop” wages.
The Government has been weighing new powers for councils to shut down factories that break the rules but Mr Beighton and Mr Kristiansen have been frustrated by the lack of progress.
“Everyone knows what is going on, but no one is listening, they are turning a blind eye to it,” said Mr Kristiansen.
“We have worked so hard to improve manufacturing standards in Asia and there are these conditions happening at home. There are already laws that should be preventing this, they just need to be enforced. We are saying, if you enforce the laws, we will invest,” the New Look boss said.
Mr Kristiansen said New Look had slashed the number of UK factories it uses from 118 three years ago to 12 after a string of failed inspections.
In January it emerged that British workers were being paid as little as £3 an hour – half the legal minimum wage requirement – to make clothes for top high street chains including New Look and River Island. New Look said that the work had been passed to a rogue factory by a sub-contractor without its knowledge and it had immediately torn up its contract with those involved.
The British Retail Consortium has also been applying pressure on Government for more changes to be made. “Whilst there are some outstanding UK factories, there are, however, shortfalls in many others,” said Peter Andrews, BRC director of food and sustainability.