‘Made in Leicester’

People often associate sweatshop conditions in the clothing industry with Bangladesh or Cambodia but one consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to reveal garment factories in Leicester which can very easily be described as sweatshops.

Labour abuses’ (breaches of labour laws) and sweatshop conditions are occurring across the UK’s garment manufacturing industries, campaigners warn. In the factories of Leicester, there are as many as 10,000 mostly immigrant workers who are reportedly paid as little as £3 an hour. During the pandemic many have been forced to work with no protective equipment, and it is said to have contributed to a spike in coronavirus cases that resulted in a second lock-down in the city.

Human rights barrister and leading expert on human trafficking, Parosha Chandran, said, ‘I think this is an example of the type of exploitation that has been going on up and down the country during Covid. If that’s the estimate of what’s happening in Leicester, then what’s happening in Birmingham? Or Nottinghamshire? Or Manchester? Or London? Modern slavery is not just confined to one place in the Midlands. It’s going on everywhere…’

A 2018 report found breaches of labour laws similar to those uncovered in Leicester in garment factories across Greater Manchester. Machinists reported being paid £4 an hour and said their payslips were doctored to make it look like they had worked fewer hours than they had actually put in. ‘The way the market is at the minute, it’s the person who produces the good cheapest who gets the order,’ one said.

Exactly the same labour abuses that the government and brands are professing shock and horror over in Leicester are happening at scale across the country,’ said Emily Kenway, an adviser at Focus on Labour Exploitation.

Again and again we see the same coercive practices impacting on the most vulnerable workers who have no way of getting their voices heard and who are forced to accept whatever conditions are pushed on them by their employers, who have little to fear from the authorities,’ said Thulsi Narayanasamy, a labour rights researcher.

The number of health and safety inspectors employed by the Health and Safety Executive has dropped by a third from 1,495 in 2009 to 978 in 2017, with funding reduced from £239m to £139m over the same period.

If employers know that they won’t be inspected, face penalties and lose business then you’re creating conditions for abuse,’ said Dominique Muller, senior campaigner at Labour Behind the Label.

Downward pressure

There exists a relentless downward pressure exerted by the global fashion industry on the workers at the bottom of the supply chain. The resulting falling price paid to suppliers has led to a substantial decline in pay rates and working conditions over the past 10 years. Garment workers have been kept working in unsafe conditions for low pay by a fashion industry seeking to maximise its own profits. The buying practices of fast fashion include turning a blind eye to sub-contracting and allowing forced and unpaid overtime. These practices have encouraged the erosion of garment worker rights by employers.

The fashion industry profits from these breaches of labour law by their suppliers. Despite decades of government regulation and ‘fair trade’ policies, sweatshops have continued to prevail because of the introduction of a marketing model called ‘fast fashion’, constantly changing clothes styles, designed for one night-out, destined for the charity shops the following morning. Consumers are buying more clothes and discarding them faster than ever. Clothes have become disposable throwaway products. Shoppers look for the lowest priced clothes and retail outlets look for larger profit margins. The knock-on effects of this in the supply chains are either accepted by consumers or obscured by marketing campaigns peddling ‘ethical’ sourcing.

Anna Bryher, advocacy director for the campaign group Labour Behind the Label, said: ‘Women at the bottom of supply chains bear the brunt of fashion’s unrelenting push to be fast and cheap…It’s obscene.’ She added: ‘Women making our clothes in Bangladesh are routinely and systematically abused and harassed.’

A recent report by a US Senate committee found Bangladesh was backsliding on garment workers’ rights. Union leaders faced intimidation, hampering their ability to investigate claims of threats and abuse, mostly of female workers.

The pressure for brands to get fashions from catwalks on to shoppers’ backs and deliver profits for investors, can lead to a rivalry to secure the cheapest source – a phenomenon referred to as ‘chasing the needle.’ If wages rise and conditions improve in one region, companies look elsewhere to keep costs down. In Ethiopia, for example, wages are much lower than the rates paid in Bangladesh and it has led to the Ethiopian government making almost a virtue out of its low labour costs.

Worker organisation

As shoppers have become more aware of labour abuses, companies have been forced to scrutinise labour practices at the various factories involved in manufacturing their products and committing themselves to addressing problems from fear of consumer boycotts. Such approaches obscure the importance of building worker power to counteract sweatshop conditions. Consumer campaigns are limited in their ability to lessen sweatshop conditions and non-respect of labour laws. Some boycotts have led companies to cancel contracts, leaving workers in a worse position, facing unemployment.

Prioritising projects that promote workers’ ability to organise collectively is crucial for securing better conditions. Worker-led efforts, rather than corporate- or consumer-led ones, shift the focus to the ideas, needs and collective action of the workers themselves. Workers self-organising, both inside or alongside trade unions, is critical to achieving freedom of association and collective bargaining. Instead of relying upon governments, corporations and consumers, worker organisation challenges the relationships of power and authority and lessens the risk of labour abuse.

Rubaiyat Hossain in her film, ‘Made in Bangladesh’ tells the story of Shimu Akhtar, a young woman making clothes for Western clothing companies whose indignation at the working conditions she is forced to endure leads her to try to unionise the factory. Hossain says she wanted to go against the stereotype of the poor, exploited factory worker.

I wanted to show that these women are active agents, fighting for their rights and demanding to be heard,’ she says. ‘Too many people think of Bangladeshi women as victims sitting behind a sewing machine, but it is thanks to female garment workers that Bangladesh is now a middle-income country. And these young women are not victims, they are often feisty, young, spirited women who are fearless and brave…’


Socialist Standard September 2020