Free, confidential whistleblowing advice
020 3117 2520

DONATE

Covid-19 exposing good and bad whistleblowing practice in the retail sector

Covid-19 is exposing good and bad practice when it comes to sectors who put employee welfare first and foremost. Unsurprisingly, retail is not leading the way, as highlighted by the quite shocking reports of working conditions of Boohoo suppliers in Leicester.

As the UK’s whistleblowing charity, we advise workers from all sectors. At the start of the pandemic our Advice Line was getting calls largely from health and care workers over issues such as lack of PPE, and carers being forced to go into work when unwell, but the majority of our calls have been over furlough fraud from the retail and hospitality sector – industries we did not have much engagement with pre-Covid-19.  The two sectors have made up 21% of 510 calls we have received regarding Covid-19 related concerns. [1]

Labour Behind the Label, who campaign for workers’ rights in the clothing industry, in its recent  report Boo-hoo and Covid-29, People behind the profit  say they too have received reports from workers alleging furlough fraud, as well as low wages, modern slavery, illegal opening of factories during lockdown and illegal denial of wages and benefits in Boohoo and other e-retailers. Worryingly, the report also states: ‘We have also heard of workers – positive for COVID-19 – being required to work throughout their sickness in order to fulfil orders…..  We have heard of several incidents, whereby workers who had tested positive were told to come into work, and of managers telling workers not to tell anyone else about positive cases.’

Big retail companies with healthy profit margins are in a position where they should be setting standards in terms of best practice, including whistleblowing.  This would mean insisting on having whistleblowing arrangements. So why isn’t it happening?

Good whistleblowing arrangements should apply not just to the employer, but also to workers in their supply chains.  If supply chain workers are comfortable to raise concerns, companies will benefit from being better informed about risks within the chain itself.

Responding to concerns raised in the supply chain e.g. reporting breaches of minimum wages, and modern slavery incidents is difficult.  Organisations will have to weigh up discussing the issues with the supplier/s or (as in the case of modern slavery incident) reporting it to an external body such as the police.  A particular difficulty lies in how to protect an individual whistleblower who raises concerns with them. A manufacturer who has received concerns from a supply worker who is not a direct employee, may find they are limited in what they can do in response to a worker being victimised for speaking up. The response we would encourage is for the large retailer to no longer work with suppliers who they credibly believe bend the rules. But brand, reputation and even profit aside, retailers need to ask themselves if it is morally acceptable on a basic human rights issue for retail manufacturers to turn a blind eye? With the public becoming so aware of basic human rights issues, as seen with #MeToo, BLM, we should all care about the real cost of fast fashion.

Encouragingly, there are some good examples of best practice in the area of supply chains. Shift is a non-profit centre for business and human rights practice, that works in collaboration with the Global Social Compliance Programme (GSCP), a business-driven program for the continuous improvement of labour and environmental conditions in global supply chains.

In its report, From Audit to Innovation: Advancing Human Rights in Global Supply Chains, Shift identifies many best practice examples as below:

Both H&M and Marks & Spencer are working with suppliers in China and Bangladesh in order to develop their management systems to track and analyse employee working hours – which can then provide the data for further analysis, operational efficiencies, and reductions in those working hours to acceptable standards

One H&M manager describing most audit processes as a ‘game of hide and seek’, during which suppliers did everything possible to hide problems from the company. The company had grown quite discouraged by the results of its audit program: while audits were catching the small infractions, they were missing the bigger picture issues; the program was failing to produce improvements over time; and its supplier base seemed uncommitted to making those improvements. Driven by a desire to create greater transparency, ownership and commitment from its suppliers, H&M’s new system is based on a philosophy of continuous improvement. The company conducts fewer audits, but the audit of each supplier is much more in-depth, lasting 6 days. The end result of each audit is a jointly developed 18-24 month workplan, based on shared prioritization of issues for improvement. Rather than conducting periodic follow-up audits, H&M follows up on progress made on the workplan. Suppliers have reported to H&M that ‘they now feel listened to, rather than just accused’, and that they now feel they ‘get credit for what they are getting right, not just what they are doing wrong.

Labour Behind the Label want the Government to ‘recognise that it is not only unscrupulous suppliers but also the lack of regulation of pricing and purchasing practices.’

Protect are calling on the Government to press ahead with a new Single Enforcement Body (SEB). The Government have committed to a (SEB) to protect worker’s employment rights with the powers to enforce 'the minimum wage, labour exploitation and modern slavery, along with holiday payments for vulnerable workers and safeguarding agency workers' which was announced with a consultation last year, which Protect responded to. Currently, enforcement is piecemeal and can be ineffective, meaning that neither workers nor compliant employers are well served.

The SEB should be made a ‘prescribed person’, as many regulators already are, including the Care Quality Commission, the Financial Conduct Authority, and the National Audit Office among many others.[2] This would enable those raising whistleblowing concerns to be protected from unfair dismissal for approaching the SEB. This measure would help to increase workers’ confidence in raising concerns by giving them enhanced legal protection.

Legislation has not been introduced so far, but the SEB is part of as part of the Government’s Good Work Plan. Protect will continue to push for the SEB to be brought in.

[1] The data ran from start of lockdown 23rd March 2020-3th July 2020.

[2] 43F of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

By Andrew Pepper-Parsons