Modern day slavery in sweatshops: an issue closer to home?

In British minds, sweatshops have long been associated with ‘developing’ countries. They are the widely accepted dirty secret of the fast fashion industry, and something that the general public is willing to turn a blind eye to, in order to get their £5 t-shirt; what may be shocking to hear is that these factories are not as far removed from British society as we’d like to imagine.

With numerous reports of garment workers in Leicester being trapped in conditions of modern slavery, it is becoming clear that vulnerable workers are being exploited much closer to home. We often look to other ‘developing’ countries and condemn the conditions there, but should we examine our situation closer to home before accusing other countries of poor working conditions?

In November 2019, a scoping survey of the greater Manchester area conducted by HomeWorkers Worldwide, a labour rights NGO, found evidence that workers were being paid as little as £3 an hour. The survey also found that some of the most vulnerable workers were undocumented migrants, who had little recourse to public assistance or support.

One worker, when describing the illegal working conditions, said: “We’re paid in cash … instead of a bank transfer. They give us payslips but they only show 16 hours a week at £7.50 an hour, whereas in fact we’re doing many more hours than that.”

Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, raised the issue to parliament, describing the situation as a “national shame”. He expressed that “these illegal businesses are not only keeping their workers in miserable conditions, they’re also undermining the marketplace for legitimate businesses to make a living in a very difficult market. I’ve seen the buildings where these workers are and it is shocking: the buildings are condemned – if there was a fire there then hundreds would die, and this is Britain in 2020.”

As these conditions continue unchanged, it is becoming harder for local companies to grow in any sustainable or ethical way. Prices are being driven down by cheap labour to such an extent that it would be impossible for an ethical company to achieve remotely competitive prices.

When asked about whether a T-shirt can be produced sustainably for £5.99, Professor Williams, director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion said: “If a business is built on fair wages and living within environmental limits then, no.”

He added: “We are buying 400% more pieces than we were less than 20 years ago… we are spending the money on stuff that we are chucking away. The system is broken and it cannot continue as it is. Most businesses know that, but it is about helping them to make that transition to a new form of business.” So what are the government doing to help?

Last February, an Environmental Audit Committee found that the Modern Slavery Act was not sufficient to stop wage exploitation at UK clothing factories, and issued a series of recommendations, including forcing brands to increase transparency in their supply chains. “This [exploitation] must stop,” said Ms Creagh, chair of the committee. “We need government action to end these 19th century practices in 21st century Britain.” However, the government refused to implement any of the committee’s recommendations.

The volume and turnover of companies seems to reflect the fast-fashion that they produce, meaning monitoring the manufactures is no easy task; and that the measures currently in place are not having the required effect.

The lack of government involvement is clear as Prof Genevieve LeBaron, the director of Speri, explains: “There is little evidence that corporate commitments to living wages are translating into meaningful change on the ground.”

Running an ethically sound business can be expensive, but many argue it shouldn’t be optional. It is unclear whether the responsibility for change lies with individual corporations or with government enforcement of legislation. Although parliament doesn’t seem to be making any changes, some businesses are trying to.

For example, Paul Smith, head of product quality and supply at Misguided, said the firm had cut the number of businesses it worked with in Leicester from 35 to just 20 due to concerns about pay and conditions at some sites.

The chair of the Leicestershire textile manufacturers association, Saeed Khilji, says demand for cheap clothes plays a significant role in the poor labour conditions. He argues that manufacturers are caught “in a sandwich” between retailers’ expectations and production costs. The way in which we as a society shop is a big contributing factor. It simply isn’t possible to produce the vast amount of products we want at the prices we have come to expect, without a little corner cutting.

With the rise of fashion houses selling cheaper clothes, will people be willing to pay more for ethically made garments? In a recent survey by consultants Kantar Futures, 80% of respondents said they would pay more for products that lasted longer. “Consumers are placing greater importance on the long-term benefits of a product, rather than cost-saving options that are seemingly more disposable.”  With the rise of swap-shops, hiring websites and online thrift stores, there does seem to be some evidence to suggest that the way we shop is evolving.

Phoebe English, a South London-based designer, believes that High Street retailers know “their business models are just not sustainable” because young people’s shopping habits are changing. “They will not be going into Primark and coming out with five bags of clothes where garments have cost them five or six quid.”

But the market research firm Mintel said good intentions did not always result in a change in behaviour. Its research suggests that an astonishing 80% of women aged 16-24 were mainly looking for low prices when shopping.

It would appear that the situation in Leicester’s garment industry is the result of a number of factors. Although the main issue does seem hinge on consumers shopping habits, perhaps we need to be more aware of the human cost associated with our clothing; while shopping with others in mind may be more expensive, the extra £5 you spend will be gratefully appreciated by many people you never considered before.

Image: ILO Asia-Pacific via