How Asos is helping to stamp out modern slavery in Mauritius

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Unlikely alliances

A recent case study presenting information from Mauritius, the creation of the Migrant Resource Centre, and the Just Good Work app from the recent Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen, highlights how unlikely alliances can form to alleviate the plight these workers face.

Siobhan Mahoney, senior program adviser at Anti-Slavery International (ASI) and Simon Platts, commercial ESG and sustainability director at Asos, explained how their alliance with Industriall Global Union affiliate Confédération des Travailleurs des Secteurs Publique et Privé (CTSP) helped migrant workers in Mauritius secure their rights.

Platts explained that back in 2015, the UK Government introduced a new anti-slavery act for any business that had a turnover of more than £36 million, and Asos decided right away to make this a mission statement of theirs.

“We worked with ASI and other partners to create a solid statement, and our statement has been used as an exemplar in the industry,” he said. 

The alliance they created with ASI back in 2017 has meant a lot more than just coming up with a modern slavery statement, it has been about incorporating visibility, transparency and sustainability into the vertical set up of the industry.

“Talking to suppliers, we quickly identified that Bangladeshi workers from Dhaka were being charged a few thousand dollars by agents over a period of time, and ultimately, the worker was indebted and therefore bonded, this was black-and-white, modern slavery.”

Platts began talking to their suppliers, enquiring if they were paying for all the fees for recruitment, and luckily for them, all their suppliers were not exploiting their workers.

“What we have at Asos is the influence of the purchasing power for those brands that we are selling on our platform, so we got them to join us on this journey and look how we can extend it further,” Platts said.

He noted that the beauty of the brand is that half of its sales come from labels like Nike or Levi’s, and these iconic brands collaborate with Asos to move the needle in this fight for workers’ rights that spans the globe.

A broader issue

In Mauritius, the fishing industry and sugar industry also recruit migrant labour. Platts reached out to the major players in the marketplace to hold co-ordinated briefings, and worked collaboratively to create new avenues for workers’ rights.

There was always a sense of friction between Asos and the Mauritian Government about exploitative labour practices, but Platts noted that by working with relevant stakeholders, the right policies could be enacted to bring about systemic change within the marketplace.

Mahoney chimed in by saying that the creation of the Migrant Resource Centre was probably the most important milestone in the securing of workers’ rights in the country.

“The centre is, in essence, a one-stop shop for migrant workers. It provides a safe space for them to interact freely and openly with one another, and this is important for their mental health, as most have been far from home for a long time,” she added.

Training and awareness programs are also offered to provide accurate information regarding workers’ inalienable rights. The service is free and is available in multiple languages.

“Due to the huge number of languages spoken by the different employees of the centre, this is really key to ensure everyone can access support in their own language.”

Handling grievances

More importantly, the centre serves as the main point of contact for workers reporting grievances against their employers.

In the last year, the centre has logged 113 reported grievances that affected around 2000 workers. The most common grievances focused on payment abuse, wage theft, contractual issues, inadequate living conditions, and insufficient food.

Moreover, there were other indications of modern slavery, including consfiscation and retention of documents such as passports, deception about employment conditions, threats, and intimidation.

Mahoney has always tried to encourage brands to have a relationship with the centre, as grievances can be handled directly and efficiently that way, to resolve them amicably.

“In one case, there were some migrant workers who contracted Covid-19, and they were moved by their employer from their dormitories to another space for isolation purposes, but there wasn’t enough space, food, or medical attention given,” she recalled.

The centre played a huge role in ensuring the workers’ complaints were dealt with in a timely manner and the main brands stepped in to alleviate the pain points.

Mahoney said the centre has been a big boon against the overall problem, as state mechanisms can be quite hard to access for migrants and are also expensive and slow.

An app joins the fight

The launch of the Just Good Work app on mobile devices was another major milestone in the fight against modern slavery in the country.

This app was designed for migrant workers to access key information and resources to make sure their rights are respected and they can be prepared for any eventuality.

Input from workers was incorporated into the design and it provides a backgrounder on the country, languages, and cultural traditions. More importantly, it gives workers facts about their employment rights, contract wages and annual leave entitlements.

“Workers can find the details of support organisations and report issues to the migrant resource centre,” she noted. There are many versions of the apps in different languages and so far it’s very popular among workers from Bangladesh and Madagascar.

The reality

Platts said years of research on modern slavery and recruitment processes in the supply chain were beginning to bear fruit. The company is making strides in bringing better visibility and transparency to the labour-recruitment process.

The app was initially for workers coming from Kenya to Qatar, but quickly expanded to other destinations in the Gulf over the last two years, and is now also available in Malaysia in over 30 different languages.

Asos and ASI are working together to empower job seekers and workers to be able to access work that is safe, profitable, and legal. This app can increase knowledge and transparency of the recruitment and employment process and shine a light on good practices.

Mahoney said ASI will always partner with key organisations, and local community grassroots community groups to help users get support and advice from people that they trust.

The organisation has a foothold in Asia, Turkey, North Africa, and India, and has an ethical trade program that covers auditing and checks on supply-chain management. 

Being nosy

Platts knew that Asos would encounter resistance from various stakeholders in the industry as it spearheaded this agenda to champion workers rights.

“You know, we’re stepping on people’s toes, looking in people’s kitchens, asking what they’re doing, and nobody likes a nosy person, but we wanted to be nosy, and we felt we had a right to be responsible for the workers that were ultimately making our clothes,” he said.

He noted that the company was dealing with a variety of supply-chain issues that concern workers’ rights in countries like China, Turkey, Syria, and even in the UK.

“I live in Leicestershire in the UK, and a lot of garment manufacturing is happening here, and some of the conditions, payments and living arrangements leave a lot to be desired.”

Nonetheless, he feels that the positives from this endeavour are what truly matter. “Happier workers are far more productive, and that flows through, and that’s better for everyone.”

Platts added that Asos has seen huge strides in visibility and transparency across the supply chain. Things are definitely looking a lot better, he said.

“I’m very pleased to be still in Mauritius sourcing great products from great manufacturers that are really stepping up to the plate on sustainability as well,” he concluded.

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