You might think that ‘Made in Britain’ is a badge of honour when it comes to the label inside your clothes, but did you know that the conditions in some garment factories in the UK are as bad as those in many of the factories in the developing world?
Leicester, home to a third of the UK’s fashion manufacturing, has been the subject of ongoing investigations into unsafe conditions, blocked fire exits, and £3 per hour wages for the past three years since the Ethical Trading Initiative, which campaigns for workers’ rights around the globe, commissioned a report on clothing manufacturing in the area.
“People will be shocked, but it’s not exaggerating the reality of the situation,” says Debbie Coulter, Head of Programmes at the ETI. £3 per hour is an average wage, although she has spoken to women who were being paid as little as £1 per hour.
Things are so bad that the chief executives of Asos and New Look have spoken out, describing the factories in Leicester as “a ticking time bomb.” They want to support British manufacturing but right now, the industry is being tarnished by working conditions and breaches in basic human rights more common with Bangladesh, not 21st Century Britain.
New Look’s Anders Kristiansen told the Telegraph this week: “Many of these factories have unsafe conditions with fire escapes blocked up, workers exploited and paid far below minimum wage. What happens if there is another massive fire, what will it take for people to wake up?”
Demand for British-made fast fashion is rising. Increased shipping costs means that it’s cheaper to manufacture in the UK for local markets rather than import from Asia or Bangladesh. Both Asos and New Look would like to manufacture more in the UK and have been at the forefront of trying to address this issue in Leicester. “This is an industry that is endemic with bad labour practices,” says Coulter. “These are incredibly poor terms and conditions of employment that people can’t imagine are being enforced in the UK in the 21st Century. It is pure and blatant exploitation and abuse of labour rights.” Typically, the workers being exploited are women from different countries who speak little English. Some come to UK on a six-month visa and work every hour they can before returning home.
Conditions in UK factories vary hugely, as they do in any country. According to Coulter, some factories are very good and modern, “but some of the worst are housed in buildings and units that frankly you’d be fearful of entering – lack of fire safety equipment, fire safety risks, building safety risks. Some of the buildings I’ve seen, I don’t think people should be working in them. There are raids and we know there have been prosecutions, but it’s a common practice for some of these companies to go out of business and open up the following day under a different name. They act with such impunity it is quite frightening.”
Fashion brands have a responsibility to ensure their supply chains do not use sweatshops but they often claim that orders are subcontracted out to other factories they have not authorised. Auditing the entire supply chain is a complex business, especially when the majority of these factories in Leicester have fewer than 20 workers and some exist illegally under the radar.
As consumers, we can help to put pressure on our favourite brands to make sure they are actively supporting initiatives like the ETI’s working group in Leicester. “At one time you would have felt comfortable about saying you only buy British-made garments, but there are no guarantees, no safeguards,” says Coulter. “It’s a stark wake-up call. If we are having problems trying to manage and address severe labour rights violations just up the M1 in Leicester, it puts into the spotlight how difficult it is to address these issues throughout global supply chains.”
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