The race to the bottom for apparel prices has resulted in a myriad of unintended consequences for garment workers around the globe. And they’re not contained to developing nations. UK factories are the latest to make headlines over alleged abuses.
An expose on the British television show Dispatches found that workers in several apparel factories in Leicester were paid less than half the national minimum wage. In the program, the reporter accepted jobs at Fashion Square Ltd, United Creations as well as one other, which supply clothing to River Island, Boohoo and New Look, respectively. At each, he was paid between £3 and £3.50 an hour.
England’s national minimum wage is £7.20 for anyone over the age of 25.
At Fashion Square, the reporter says he was told the wage was based on what the factory could afford to pay given that “We don’t get paid much for clothes, and we need to compete with China and Bangladesh.”
The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), an alliance of companies, trade unions and non-governmental organizations that advocates for workers’ rights, has had Leicester in its sights for three years. It formed a working group to coordinate efforts with its members and local partners to tackle issues related to wages and working conditions there.
“Leicester is booming,” said Debbie Coulter, ETI’s spokesperson, “but it is booming primarily on the back of a growing band of start-up very low-cost Etailers and Cash and Carry merchandisers supplying market traders and cheap high street independent stores. The latter in particular often work with unscrupulous manufacturers and have little regard for the workers who make their clothes.”
ETI members, River Island and New Look, which were called out on the program, both indicate that the factories in question had been de-listed and blame suppliers for subcontracting to them in violation of their contracts.
Boohoo says it was not aware that its supplier was working with United Creations and that it has sent a member of its compliance team to the facility.
Missguided, another retailer with clothes coming out of United Creations said, “We take the allegations … very seriously and demand the highest standards of safety, working conditions and pay from all of our suppliers and subcontractors. We are committed to achieving the standards set by the Ethical Trading Initiative and conduct regular audits and spot-checks of our supply chain. We have begun an internal investigation … we will also ensure these matters are addressed urgently by the supplier in the best interests of the workers.”
In light of these revelations, ETI is calling on groups like Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), the Health and Safety Executive and HM Revenue and Customs as well as politicians to act.
To retailers, ETI says it is up to them to create an ethical environment, which includes sanctions against suppliers that work with these factories, supporting labor unions and conducting audits that get to the heart of the issue.