Unions are demanding changes to the law to allow workers to bring claims for unpaid wages, sick pay and holiday pay not only from their immediate employer but also from any contractor higher up the supply chain.
Recent reports have suggested staff in Leicester “sweatshops” are paid as little as £4 an hour - well below the minimum wage - and there are fears that workers’ reluctance to stay home when ill may have contributed to the spike in coronavirus infections in the Midlands city.
The TUC today said the situation had highlighted a “huge gap in the law” which allowed major firms to “wash their hands” of responsibility over the behaviour of sub-contractors.
General secretary Frances O’Grady called on the government to extend joint liability laws to make “parent employers” responsible for stopping exploitation of workers in their supply chains, as they are in Australia.
The TUC estimates that several million UK workers cannot enforce their basic rights with the companies for which they are ultimately working.
The Low Pay Commission estimates that as many as 420,000 workers do not receive the legal minimum wage, while the TUC said some 2 million are believed to miss out on of holiday pay totalling £1.6bn each year.
Ms O’Grady accused the government of “dragging its feet” on the issue by failing to implement a 2018 recommendation of its own Director of Labour Market Enforcement to bring in “joint responsibility” for breaches.
The TUC general secretary said: “The terrible way that workers in Boohoo’s supply chain have been treated has once again exposed the huge gaps in the law that allow big companies to wash their hands of responsibility for the behaviour of their subcontractors.
“Big companies should have to ensure that the people making their products work in safe conditions, receive the holiday pay and sick pay to which they are entitled, and are paid a fair and legal wage. Paying adequate sick pay is the bare minimum required from companies if they are to stop the spread of Covid-19 in their workplaces.
“Millions of UK workers currently cannot enforce their basic rights against the companies that profit from their labour, and the government must do more to protect them.
“Unless parent employers are held jointly liable for the actions of their subcontractors then many supply chain workers will remain at risk.”
Following earlier reports of exploitation in Leicester garment factories, Boohoo said in a statement: “As one of a number of retailers that source products in the area, Boohoo wants to reiterate that it does not and will not condone any incidence of mistreatment of employees and of non-compliance with our strict supplier code of conduct.”
Leicester, which is currently under a local lockdown, became the first place in England to have tighter restrictions reimposed on 30 June, after an increase in Covid-19 infections was recorded.