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Toughen anti-slavery laws, say UK lawmakers after fashion probe

By Sonia Elks

LONDON, Feb 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Fashion companies who flout a law requiring them to publish details of their actions to combat slavery should face a penalty under a toughening of legislation, British lawmakers said after holding an inquiry into the industry.

Large firms should also be forced to take responsibility for worker abuse and child labour throughout their supply chains, said a report from the Environmental Audit Committee published on Tuesday.

"What we can't have is a consequence-free world where people who turn a blind eye to abuses in their supply chain get away scot free," committee chair Mary Creagh told the Thomson Reuters (Dusseldorf: TOC.DU - news) Foundation.

"That makes a nonsense of the whole law because you have got no incentive to comply and bad retailers are hitching a ride on the back of the good ones," said Creagh.

Britain was hailed as a global leader after passing the 2015 Modern Slavery Act which introduced life sentences for traffickers and forced large companies go public with their efforts to address forced labour.

But critics say the law is not being effectively or fully used, while the committee said it did not go far enough.

The advent of fast fashion, with consumers buying and quickly binning cheap clothes, has exacerbated the risk of forced labour in global supply chains as factories come under ever greater pressure from leading brands, activists say.

The committee called for the slavery act to be updated to require all large companies to perform checks for labour abuse across their full supply chains, with Creagh saying the proposals would see firms expected to make an audit every year.

The government said it had written to 17,000 businesses to remind them of their obligation to provide a statement on how they are tackling modern slavery and that it would be releasing its own transparency statement later this year.

"We are committed to managing the environmental and social and impacts of clothing, particularly in this era of fast fashion," a spokesman said.

Lawmakers quizzed company leaders, government representatives and experts during their inquiry into Britain's 32 billion pound ($41 billion) fashion industry, which sources the majority of its clothes from Asia.

They heard labour abuse remains rife within fashion, with workers globally facing poor conditions and reports some British textile workers are being paid as little as £3.50 per hour, well below the minimum wage.

Digital technology should be harnessed to track products from farm to shelf, the committee said, urging the government to work with industry on developing systems to trace raw materials.

Anti-abuse groups agreed current legislation needed to be strengthened.

"Even (Taiwan OTC: 6436.TWO - news) if they comply with the legislation...we often find what they say they are doing is really not good enough," said Cindy Berman, at the Ethical Trading Initiative group.

She (Munich: SOQ.MU - news) called for monitoring of companies' statements to ensure they are making meaningful efforts to tackle abuses.

About 25 million people are estimated to be trapped in forced labour, from factories to farms, the United Nations says. ($1 = 0.7723 pounds) (Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)