In April, Fashion Revolution held its annual Fashion Revolution Week, an initiative established five years ago following the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, in which thousands of people (mostly women) were killed. While a lot of the conversation during the week – which included events such as Fashion Question Time held at the Houses of Parliament – was dominated by the subject of workers’ rights in places like Bangladesh and Pakistan, it was made abundantly clear that the impact of the fast fashion industry is global. In fact, the exploitation of workers and factories in appalling conditions are not abstract concepts that remain the problem of far away shores – they’re a reality for many people struggling to make a living right here in the UK. And a damning report, published in the FT today and written by Sarah O’Connor, only helps to emphasise just how appalling this reality is.
O’Connor met with many individuals involved with Leicester’s garment industry, from workers themselves to factory owners. Her findings are a shock, even for those who may have already been aware of at least part of the problem. In a bid to keep up with the demand of fast fashion brands (the report names e-tailers Boohoo and Missguided specifically, as “both source at least half their clothes in the UK”) O’Connor reports that some factories are operating under conditions that are “more reminiscent of the 19th century than the 21st.” A “bizarre microeconomy” has consequently emerged, “where larger factories using machines are outcompeted by smaller rivals using underpaid humans.” The report describes derelict-looking buildings housing multiple factories, all crammed together and playing host to hundreds of workers paid well below the UK minimum wage, which is currently £7.83 for everyone over the age of 25. O’Connor writes: “Part of Leicester’s garment industry has become detached from UK employment law, “a country within a country”, as one factory owner puts it, where “‘£5 an hour is considered the top wage’, even though that is illegal.”
Thirty years ago, Leicester was at the heart of UK manufacturing, even bearing the motto “Leicester clothes the world.” But with many businesses choosing to move their production overseas where it was considerably cheaper, factories in Leicester soon found themselves competing with plunging prices and a much quicker turnover. While several high street brands are named in the report, most are quick to dismiss claims that they source from these so-called “dark factories”, with some denying all knowledge and shifting the blame onto factory owners. This echoes what happened in the wake of Rana Plaza – people were forced to pick through the rubble to find clothing labels in order to identify the retailers who were sourcing from that factory. But if retailers truly are unaware, this proves that there is still a huge problem with fashion supply chains, as Sarah Ditty, head of policy at Fashion Revolution explains. "This just really highlights that poor working conditions is an endemic and systemic problem for the fashion industry, not just in Asia or Central America where we think of sweatshops existing, but in our own communities," says Ditty. “It really hits home the fact that fashion brands and retailers don't have robust enough due diligence processes to monitor factory conditions.”
Why is society valuing the right of an individual to consume more, for less than ever before, over the rights of the human beings behind the products?
O’Connor’s report is not the first of its kind. Channel 4’s Dispatches exposed factories paying under the minimum wage when it sent a worker undercover into various places, where clothes were reportedly being made for the likes of New Look, Boohoo and Missguided. Again, as O’Connor points out in her report, “All retailers said their orders had been subcontracted to those factories without their permission or knowledge.” During this year’s Fashion Revolution Week, Debbie Coulter, of the Ethical Trading Initiative explained that “Worker exploitation thrives in hidden situations away from public scrutiny. And you don’t have to travel along the back streets of Dakar or Deli to find that there are places in east London, Bradford, Manchester and particularly in Leicester where garments are made in the most horrific conditions and workers are being paid on average £3 per hour.”
Coulter suggested this was an open secret; something which O’Connor also touches on when she writes: “Perhaps the strangest thing about this labour exploitation is that it is an open secret. Central government knows; local government knows; retailers know." She also spoke to Anders Kristiansen, former CEO of New Look from 2013-2017, who told O'Connor: "When I came to the UK and I discovered what was going on in Leicester, it was mind-blowing. This is happening in front of your eyes and nobody’s doing anything?!"
It’s hard to imagine exploitation happening on a similar scale, in a similar way, as it does in places like Pakistan, where workers have significantly fewer rights than those working in the UK. Initiatives like Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index are working hard to ensure that the supply chain is not as impenetrable as it has been, encouraging the world’s biggest retailers to provide information about every step in their manufacturing process. But this is not obligatory, and many still choose not to participate, or are shown to be providing only a glimpse into what is an enormous operation. And, as Ditty says, the key to really solving the problem is to have monitoring in place at all times: “This is an ongoing challenge that needs to be continually tackled. You can have the greatest policies in place but if your activities aren’t continually monitored, these conditions will continue to persist.”
While it’s difficult to prove exactly which brands are using which factories (even here in the UK), it’s important to remember that not one single retailer is to blame. As Ditty said when she sat on a panel during Fashion Revolution Week, “it’s important to keep the conversation positive, to encourage and fight for change. This isn’t about going after individual companies because everyone could do more – nobody at the moment is doing it all perfectly.” With that said, on a personal level, it might be useful to remember that if a piece of clothing seems absurdly cheap, exploitation of the person who made it may be the explanation for the low cost.