Marks & Spencer have recently released a report addressing issues and solutions in their supply chain. In 2018, they partnered with Oxfam to understand the reality of workers and suppliers beyond audits and management. With no room for complacency, Marks & Spencer focused on workers’ experiences, in-work poverty, and gender equality.
Oxfam was allowed to interview 390 workers in Marks & Spencer footwear industry in India and food manufacturing sites in the UK. This gap analysis captured the real struggles experienced by workers in their supply chain. It allowed Marks &Spencer managers to learn that workers were ineffectively voicing their concerns, receiving inadequate sick pay, and experiencing few fair and transparent job progression processes
The study also discovered in-work poverty, gender discrimination, and poor communication between managers and workers. These issues had not previously been revealed due to the fear of repercussion in voicing concerns. All the while, workers explained that if they believed nothing would change if they spoke up then they remained silent. Oxfam was able to glean new information by building trust with workers. Interviews were often held away from job sites, workers were promised anonymity, and were reassured they could speak freely without any negative consequences. This allowed workers to talk about issues never revealed before in audits or to management.
These interviews gave Marks & Spencer managers key insights, such as how their skilled leather workers were still experiencing poverty despite earning more than the minimum wage. The disconnect of the information received by Marks & Spencer managers from third-party audits and worker report also revealed different points of conflict. These conflicts were caused by gendered norms, caste discrimination, and low income. Oxfam uncovered that in six Indian sites men were paid more than women despite doing the same job. All the while, workers reported only earning about 5,000-7,500 rupees a month- well beneath the living wage of 21,000 rupees trade union leaders demanded from the Indian government.
During the study, Oxfam was also able to discover different solutions to these points of conflict. Suggestions included that Marks & Spencer provide stable job opportunities, freedom of agency work, and higher wage rates. These solutions would not only help many workers across Marks & Spencer supply chain, but it would uphold their high standards in sustainability reporting, as previously seen in their Plan A. However, Marks & Spencer has explained that global and cross-industry effort is needed to make effective change. This is important in light of fast fashion brands failing to be sustainable and ethical. In August 2020, audits revealed that 18 Leicester factories producing clothing for Boohoo were not paying workers minimum wage. They were also not having workers clock in and out, which meant workers were not only receiving less than minimum wage but also working excessive hours with no official records to keep track. In addition, workers provided allegations of discrepancies in records of hours worked, no use of computerized timesheets, and the presence of issues in safety and health policies.
· Marks & Spencer’s report with Oxfam demonstrates the need for clear and transparent business processes and clear communication within their supply chain.
· It also shows the importance of working towards solutions and forming long term investments that create dignified jobs.
All the while, the report invites retailers to move away from relying on audits and compliance and instead recommends that their standards and business practices create positive change. It would empower workers and radically transform the fashion and food industry.
If you are interested in learning more from the real voices of garment workers, check out Justice in Fashion’s Voice Platform. In this space, stories share the issues faced by women employed in the fashion industry and those fighting for justice.