In the late 1980s, growing concern for worker welfare led to the creation of the Clean Clothes Campaign. The NGO was founded to help empower and protect labour rights in the globalised apparel industry and kick started the anti-sweatshop movement. Since then, the mobilisation of citizens across Europe and North America has marked a growing awareness of the exploitation inherent within the fashion industry. Particular attention has been placed on the treatment of the labour force in developing countries.
In 2013, the disastrous Rana Plaza collapse – widely considered the deadliest garment factory accident in history – sparked a fresh out cry from the global press. The disaster exposed many high street brands including Primark, Walmart, Bonmarche, Bennetton and Mango who out sourced production to Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In the course of the investigation it was revealed that the factory workers were being paid less than 38 Euros a month and had expressed concern about the safety of the building within days of the disaster taking place.
Protests outside Primark and Benetton in Oxford Circus, London, sought to pressure brands into taking responsibility for the event and the future welfare of their work force. A new accord on Factory and Building Safety in Bangladesh was created to improve conditions for workers though several brands refused to sign, since it meant paying more for their stock. In the UK, MPs sought to push new legislation forcing high street brands to audit their supply chains and ensure slave labour was not used.
Despite this tragic history and new legislation, last week Dispatches exposed garment factories in Leicester paying staff as little as £3 an hour to supply high street chains. While there is a general awareness that poor labour practice occurs in countries where federal law is not as strong, what is particularly shocking in this case is the location. The UK purports a minimum charter of employment rights which should be provided by law; paid holidays, breaks from work, limits to excessively long working hours, enrolment to a basic pension fund and a minimum wage of £7.20 per hour for over 25 year olds.
Undercover reporter, Belal worked for two days labelling River Island dresses at Fashion Square Ltd before being told his salary. After a weeks work he received £110, less than half the minimum wage per hour. When confronted about the low wages one factory manager revealed he considered himself in direct competition with other countries to meet orders at a minimum cost.
“we don’t get paid much for our clothes, and we need to compete with China and Bangladesh….if we pay everyone £10 or £6 then we will make a loss”
This statement is in stark contrast with River Island’s most recent accounts that show an operating profit of £144 million in 2014.
An investigation in 2010 discovered high street chain, New Look were associated with a factory paying workers just £2 an hour, the brand promised all its suppliers were required to pay a living wage. Yet despite this, in 2016 New Look was again found to be using a factory paying staff less than half the minimum wage; just £3.50 per hour. This figure seems to directly contradict the statement on New Look’s website which claims to protect workers in its supply chain and is at odds with their pre-tax profit which rose to £59.1 million last year.
Benefitting from a huge boom in online retail, brands such as BooHoo and Missguided show similarly staggering growth. Nitin Passi, founder of Missguided has a net worth of £65 million while Boohoo has seen profit rise from £260,000 to £15.3 million in four years. Meanwhile workers in United Creations, a Leister based factory are paid £3.25 per hour to produce items for these brands. Furthermore, the Dispatches reporter discovered serious violations in health and safety in the premise, with blocked fire exits, piles of rubbish and workers smoking on the factory floor.
The brands exposed in the programme responded in various ways including terminating contracts with the suspect factories, claiming they were unaware of the slip in standards or that the work was subcontracted without their consent. Missguided responded with the following statement;
“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.”
Like many High Street shops River Island, New Look and Missguided are part of the Ethical Trading Initiative; a UK based organisation, founded to promote and support ethical trade in global supply chains. Yet inspite of such apparent concern for worker rights, the fashion industry’s consistent lack of action towards improving welfare in supply chains is deeply worrying. Terminating contracts not only leaves employees in a potentially worse position, it fails to address the root of the problem. In the current system the price of clothing is not equal to the time and effort necessary to produce it fairly. The result is exploitation at the bottom of the supply chain. I believe it is the responsibility of individual brands to ensure workers at every stage of production are paid fairly, even if this means rising the price of their apparel.
However, it is also important that change stems from consumers themselves. The individuals interviewed on Dispatches highlighted the prevailing attitude of today- “I won’t think where its come from or how its been made…I’m just looking at what I’m going to look good in”. In order for the customer to except a higher price for their goods, re-education is key. Understanding the value of production and clothing beyond trend based, seasonal wear is an imperative step towards a fairer fashion system.