Reports of illegal wages and exploitation are common in the UK garment
The UK garment industry is centred around a number of hubs. The largest is based in Leicester, with around 1,000-1,500 factory units. For several years, numerous media reports have detailed illegal practices in UK-based garment factories that are linked to big brands. As a result, many brands have switched to sourcing elsewhere. Only a few remain.
Workers are vulnerable to exploitation
Most garment workers in Leicester are from minority ethnic groups, and around a third were born outside the UK. These workers are vulnerable to abuse as a result of their immigration status, language skills and support systems.
There have also been numerous allegations of links to modern slavery and trafficking.
Lack of documented resident status or entitlement to work means that many workers are willing to accept poor conditions in exchange for a job, even one without formal contracts or minimum wages. This also contributes to a situation where workers are unable – or unwilling – to speak out about labour rights abuses for fear of being deported or otherwise investigated.
The situation is compounded by the UK Home Office hostile environment policy, which focuses on reducing immigration figures by restricting freedoms for people who are deemed to be in the UK illegally.
In practice, this targets and punishes migrant workers as opposed to redressing exploitation and promoting a systematic change of labour practices.
Holding brands to account
Until now, enforcement has been largely limited to a handful of factories, but this alone will not solve the problem. Exploitation and illegal wages in the UK garment industry are fuelled by purchasing practices of big brands demanding fast production times, low prices and short lead-in times.
All of this encourages a system of sub-contracting to unaudited and unknown suppliers. In order to make meaningful change for UK garment workers, we need brands to change their purchasing practices, pay more for their orders and be transparent about where their clothes are made, and who made them.
Short- and long-term solutions
The current model of fast fashion and the current pricing structure of brands like Boohoo as well as other prominent brands means that sub-contracting, underpayment of wages, and illegal and insecure employment conditions are the norm for garment factories. Indeed, industry sources state that it is impossible to produce the units/garments requested by fast fashion brands for the product price while paying workers the national minimum wage in the UK.
The UK government needs to ensure that companies comply with their responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and cannot simply refer to unworkable codes of conduct, shifting responsibility onto suppliers. Companies must investigate and remediate abuses within their supply chain and halt business practices which encourage a cheap and disposable workforce.
Procurement practices and their impact must be examined and a commitment to labour rights and positive change must be embedded in supply chains including through protective and clear legislation. Government agencies must work together to address the situation holistically and urgently in Leicester. This approach must include local stakeholders, unions, and local authorities, as well as the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the Health & Safety Executive, and others. It must be clear that the focus is on protection of workers and that immigration enforcement will not be involved in nor receive information or data from this work.