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OP-ED: Why labour exploitation and social injustices continue for garment workers closer to home

As seen on Fashion Roundtable.

Whenever I hear about the severe social injustices within the fashion industry, I always think back to the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 which took with it 1,134 lives and first put the inequalities operating within the global fashion supply chain in the media spotlight. Workers were forced to work, despite raising the alarm of the structural integrity of their factory. The building took 90 seconds to collapse, causing widespread revulsion at the conditions garment workers faced, filling orders for some of the UK’s favourite high-street fast-fashion brands. A few weeks later, around 200 brands signed the Bangladesh Safety Accord which was set up to inspect factory safety and oversee necessary repairs, and yet last year the Bangladesh government granted its cessation. According to Clean Clothes Campaign there is still a severe lack of transparency with around 50% of factories lacking even the most basic fire safety measures and workers are again at risk having lost a credible and necessary way to track and publish progress.

In 2017 the fashion industry was worth around £32 billion to the UK economy and employed around 890,000 people in the sector. This is big business for our economy and continues to outperform other markets year on year. Our industry relies on a subterranean set of skills and the global supply change has proven a tricky one to manage, with a definitive lack of transparency. Transparency is not only necessary in ensuring brand accountability, but also in ensuring the safety and treatment of workers within the supply chain. As it stands the overarching flaw to many organisations pushing for greater transparency, such as Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index is that this process is entirely voluntary, meaning that there isn’t necessarily an incentive for brands to participate. Alongside this obvious loophole, there is also the issue of sub-contracting and where manufacturers sub-contract, brands are not required to disclose this in their auditing. In a mass-manufacturing market like this and with pricing consistently knocked down, this is a cycle that will continue until there is some form of systemic change. While I can appreciate the work that many organisations are doing to hold the fashion industry as a whole accountable, this is a far-reaching issue which requires proper government legislation alongside brand cooperation.

Since the start of the global pandemic, fast-fashion brands have again come under scrutiny with many not only cancelling orders, but also withholding payments and breaking contracts with Bangladeshi manufacturers. According to Tradecraft Exchange, 4 million garment workers could face destitution if brands do not act and with consumers becoming far more concerned at the social impacts of the fashion industry, it is astounding that some of our high-street’s best-known labels are yet to pay up, particularly under public scrutiny.

There is a widespread assumption that illegally low wages and poor working conditions only relate to workers in low-economic exporting countries, however the recent emerging evidence on the Leicester garment factories proves otherwise. I first heard of the conditions within the garment factories in Leicester when I followed the undercover work by journalist Sarah O’Connor which was published in Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability Report back in February 2019. According to Labour Behind the Label, many of these factories have continued working throughout lockdown, mainly to sustain orders for fast-fashion giant Boohoo. Labour Behind the Label has since reported that these factories were said to be working at full capacity without protective Covid-19 measures or social distancing, and on 30 June, Leicester saw a staggering 1,056 confirmed Covid-19 cases.

The report also revealed that the majority of these garment workers are from minority ethnic groups, many of which don’t have an entitlement to work or a solid resident status. These workers are therefore vulnerable and living in fear of deportation – so remain silent about the poor conditions, and dismal pay. Since this has come to light, the National Crime Agency are investigated for claims of modern-day slavery, furlough fraud and wage and benefit theft.  Boohoo are said to now be launching an independent review of their supply chain with an initial investment of £10 million. What this shows is that it has yet again taken public scrutiny and bad press for a brand to begin to tackle transparency within its supply chain. Last week, Boohoo lost around £2bn off the value of its company, highlighting that consumers are demanding a far more transparent and inclusive system moving forward which brands will need to address with some urgency. Shares dived nearly 18% on concerns that revelations about poor conditions in their Leicester factories might hit sales growth and increase costs.

Despite the fact that we’re calling for more inclusion in the fashion industry, fast-fashion brands continue to play a prominent part in violating workers’ rights and exasperating their vulnerabilities. The United Nations agency ILO promotes ‘decent work’ as part of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in line with the UN’s new development vision for 2030. Decent work is defined as the opportunity “for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate.” The implementation of trade unions within supply chains, would assist with the UN’s vision. This would be a long-term sustainable goal and would be a way of empowering workers in their own workplace. However, the majority of these garment workers are women who often work from home or are offered casual contracts and are well-documented as the least protected. It is therefore fundamental that unions recognise this informal sector to ensure freedom of association.

Whether we like it or not, there continues to be a blatant disregard within the fashion industry for workers within the supply chain and it’s a cycle that has seemingly continued for far too long – whether that be in Bangladesh or here in the UK. Being an activist, particularly for social change, can be a lonely road and quite honestly what I felt when I wrote this piece, was a new level of despondency. A despondency that we’re not doing enough collectively to call out discrimination when we see it and a despondency that brands aren’t doing enough to address some of these fundamental issues. Without transparency, the supply chain will continue to live underground and without this visibility workers will suffer. It is now imperative that governments intervene with far stricter legislations and that brands voluntarily begin the process of becoming far more transparent in their work. Working as an activist is so much more than striving for social change, and over the years I’ve found that at the very core of our work there is an unshakeable level of empathy. I think we often forget that these workers are people just like us and we need to draw on this to tackle the social impact within our industry, because if we don’t continue to speak up, who will?

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