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Manchester academics urge new government to go digital to fight exploitation and ‘tech-washing’ in fashion sector

Academics from the University of Manchester are urging the new government to harness the potential of digital technology to help tackle modern slavery and labour exploitation in the UK garment manufacturing and ‘fast fashion’ industries.

Based on knowledge gained from their own interdisciplinary research project, which included interviews with stakeholders, Dr Jon Davies, Professor Rose Broad and Dr Amy Benstead identify poor working conditions, underpayment, long hours without proper breaks and a lack of job security as key challenges in these sectors which lead to the improper treatment of employees.

“In severe cases, workers may face threats and coercion, making it difficult to identify and stop exploitation,” they write. “Additionally, complex supply chains and subcontracting obscure accountability, which can allow unethical practices to develop. Efforts to enforce legislation and ensure ethical standards are often insufficient or inadequately enforced, which contributes to the overall problem.”

The authors reveal that many of the businesses they examined were found to have a limited awareness of how digital technology can be used to assist in preventing modern slavery and exploitation from developing in garment manufacturing supply networks.

“Commonly asserted benefits of tools such as Blockchain include a real-time ledger that all parties in a network/supply chain can access, which includes transaction details and contracts,” they explain. “Importantly, stakeholders cannot retroactively change this information without the consent of all parties in the network, which in theory improves accountability and trust among stakeholders. Nevertheless, most participants in our research were not familiar with Blockchain in day-to-day business usage.”

In businesses which were aware of tools such as Blockchain, Davies, Rose and Benstead discovered that these “tended to be seen as a ‘gimmick’ that did not address underlying explanations for modern slavery such as extensive use of subcontracting and pressure to minimise labour and product costs.” They continue: “Related to this, smaller businesses may lack the resources and/or expertise to implement Blockchain, whereas larger fashion brands were perceived as unwilling to implement it due to reputational concerns if cases of exploitation came to light as a result.”

From their findings, The University of Manchester academics make a series of policy recommendations to address the issues highlighted in their article.

These propose the launch of a government consultation or inquiry “that crosscuts policymakers, industry, regulators/enforcement and academia on the relative merits and drawbacks of implementing tools such as Blockchain in garment manufacturing and the fashion industry more widely.”

Further to this, they advocate placing a requirement on businesses “to avoid ‘tech-washing’ and associated human rights abuses by being clear about their actions and to what extent they use digital technology.” They describe the Commercial Organisations and Public Authorities Duty (Human Rights and Environment) Bill, Private Members’ legislation proposed by Baroness Young of Hornsey in the last Parliament, as having the potential to provide “a positive framework for this recommendation to take shape” if adopted by the new UK government.

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