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UK Textile Workers Paid Less Than Half Legal and Living Wage

“Made in Britain” may not conjure notions of an exploited workforce, but according to a new report, workers in the country’s Leicester and East Midlands garment sectors are being paid as little has half of the legal minimum wage.

Apparel manufacturing in the U.K. has experienced a revival from fast fashion, where more brands buy local, but a new report raises concerns of an equal rise in workplace violations.The report “New Industry on a Skewed Playing Field: Supply Chain Relations and Working Conditions in UK Garment Manufacturing,” was created by researchers at the University of Leicester in England.

The researchers note that the U.K. garment manufacturing model has shifted. The average size of a garment manufacturer has declined by more than 60 percent over the last 20 years, for example, and in 2013, 82 percent of firms employed less than 10 people.

“These two drivers – sourcing and purchasing practices as well as product and labor market regulations – have in many ways resulted in a new, very different, industry which is dominated by small firms, fragmented supply chains, a largely vulnerable workforce, and the absence of enterprise-level industrial relations and worker representation,” the report noted.

In 2013, 485 businesses were in operation in the East Midlands with roughly 13,200 workers. The East Midlands is the U.K.’s largest apparel manufacturing hub, and since 1995, the area has increased its share of apparel production from 17 percent to 28 percent. Some of that growth is owed to the rise in fast fashion and the higher demand for quick turnarounds.

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Findings from the report revealed that 75-90 percent of garment workers in the Leicester sourcing hub are paid 3 pounds per hour ($4.62) on average, well below the national minimum hourly wage of 6.50 pounds ($10), and also below the U.K. living wage, which is defined as $7.85 per hour ($12.08). Those without a legal right to work in the country can earn as little as 1 pound per hour ($1.54).

The estimated total in underpaid wages within the East Midlands manufacturers is 1 million pounds per week, ($1.54 million).

Beyond wages, the absence of employment contracts is compounded by exploitative working conditions like inadequate health and safety standards, verbal abuse, bullying, threats and a lack of restroom breaks, the report noted.

The Ethical Trading Initiative, an alliance of companies, trade unions and NGOs that promotes respect for worker’s rights across the globe, launched a program in the Leicester garment sector following the report’s release that aims to address issues linked to low wages, like training and support for suppliers and manufacturers, and also focus on promoting ethical purchasing practices among brands and retailers.

Debbie Coulter, ETI’s head of programs, said, “Leicester is an important manufacturing centre for many fashion brands and retailers and is part of a re-emergence in U.K. textiles manufacturing. We know there are good business practices within some parts of the sector, but this research has also found evidence of serious and endemic labor rights issues. No worker should be paid below the national minimum wage, or work in precarious conditions where they are at risk of exploitation. These are serious issues that need to be addressed with urgency, if this sector is going to thrive and prosper.”

Collaboration, according to the researchers, will be key to combating labor issues across manufacturing supply chains. Firstly, governments should consult on and redefine joint supply chain responsibility and accountability. The industry should also develop mechanisms to specify the labor contribution to garment manufacturing and make the labor cost element explicit in contracts.

“This can start with labor costs at the cut-make-trim stage and use a variant of existing systems in the garment industry such as predetermined time standard (PTS) systems. This would go a long way towards tackling unfair wage competition and make lead firms’ responsible approach to wages explicit,” according to the report.

The report also suggested solutions: Brands should adopt auditing and monitoring mechanisms and use them to develop shared audits and establish increased transparency. Training for buyers and ethical trade managers should be completely integrated, and consultations with suppliers on purchasing practices that reward socially responsible manufactures should also be conducted.

“Nonetheless, garment manufacturing in the U.K. has good prospects, evidenced in increasing turnover and employment, if it can address the challenges that result from the avoidance of business and employment standards,” the report noted. “These challenges pose fundamental questions for practices of supply chain management, related issues of transparency and accountability, as well as the public and private regulation of inter-firm relations and employment standards.”