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Garment Workers Are Being Exploited in the UK. One MP Calls it a ‘National Shame.’

A minister of the British Parliament has voiced concern over the plight of 10,000 garment workers who are believed to toil in the English city of Leicester under conditions of modern slavery, including criminally underpaid wages, exploitative hours and unsafe workplaces.

Speaking to the Guardian last month, Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire decried the situation in Leicester as a “dirty secret” and “national shame” that cannot be allowed to continue.

“This is Leicester’s dirty secret,” he said. “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. It’s a national shame.”

Besides trapping their workers in abysmal situations, these illegal businesses are also “undermining the market” for legitimate ones that are struggling in an already squeezed market, Bridgen added. He and business minister Kelly Tolhurst have agreed to meet to discuss the issue further.

Indeed, “Made in Britain” is no guarantee that the work performed is ethical or even legally accountable.

A 2015 report by the Centre for Sustainable Work and Employment Futures found that 75 percent to 90 percent of garment workers in the Leicester sourcing area receive an average of 3 pounds ($3.98) per hour—well below the then national minimum wage of 7.83 pounds ($10.16) per hour. (The minimum wage increased to 8.21 pounds, or $10.65, in 2019.)

Packers, the report noted, tend to be paid less, and those with little experience even less. Worst off are workers without right-to-work and residency status, as they can receive as little as 1 pound ($1.30) per hour. Researchers estimated that East Midlands manufacturers underpaid by 1 million pounds ($1.29 million) per week.

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A similar investigation by the Financial Times in 2018 reported that both Boohoo and Missguided source at least half their clothes in the hubs of Leicester and Manchester, where so-called “dark factories” have become “detached from U.K. employment law” to operate as “a country within a country,” and production speed and output are valued over people. Although reshoring is generally seen as a good thing for local economies, the attraction of these facilities to faster-fashion businesses rests solely on their ability to bring product quickly to market.

The United Kingdom is a prime market for clothing, too. British consumers buy more new clothes annually than any other European country, numbers show.

Last year, an investigation by the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee, discovered that the Modern Slavery Act was an inefficient check on wage exploitation. It suggested strengthening laws by proactively enforcing the national minimum wage and requiring an “appropriate penalty” for companies that fail to comply with the act. The British government ultimately rejected that and all other recommendations, however.

Leicester has the second-highest concentration of textile manufacturers in the United Kingdom, with 700 factories employing 10,000 textile workers, according to the Leicester City Council.