Think it’s a third world problem? Nope! Slave labour in fashion happens in the ‘developed’ world, too.
By Chere Di Boscio
Exploitation of garment workers across fast-fashion supply chains is nothing new to conscious shoppers. By now, we all know the story of Rana Plaza, and we are well aware of the dire situation sewers of our clothing in places like Cambodia and China face.
However, many of us across the West have considered this to be a problem which occurs only in developing countries, rendering it an issue outside of our control. Yet now, new light has been shed on how slave labour in fashion happens in the Western world, too.
Here’s how, and who is most vulnerable.
Yes, Slave Labour In Fashion Happens Here, Too
In the UK, fast-fashion continues to grow year on year; we buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe. The rise of fast-fashion retailers – including the likes of Pretty Little Thing, Missguided, Boohoo and Nastygal – has only accelerated, despite intensified scrutiny. Replicating catwalk trends at an overwhelmingly low cost, fast-fashion offers an accessible alternative to luxury apparel. Yet this comes at a high human cost.
Just last year, the Guardian reported on the ‘story of a £4 Boohoo dress’, emphasising that the success of the fast-fashion industry and its constant cycle of weekly collections are often ‘built on low wages paid to women working in factories abroad. But it’s not only in exotic, far away lands that this happens: it is also increasingly true in the UK, in cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, London and Leicester.’
These low wages, it seems, are verging on slave labour in fashion. In early July 2020, a Sunday Times investigation revealed the ‘sweatshop conditions’ endured by factory workers in a Leicester supply chain which provides clothing to Nastygal – owned by Boohoo. Undercover journalist Vidhathri Matety – posing as a worker within the factory – found that he would be paid just £3.50 an hour for his labour, which he described as ‘back-breaking work’.
Since the publication of his investigation, allegations of modern slavery have once again clouded the reputation of leading fast-fashion brands, with activists across social media urging for the public to boycott Boohoo and its similar counterparts. Yet this is not the first time that such allegations of rife exploitation of garment workers in developed countries have come to light.
A 2015 study carried out by the University of Leicester warned of the precarious, exploitative working conditions within Leicester-based apparel suppliers. Researchers noted that many workers were paid well below minimum wage, did not have employment contracts and were subject to discrimination, abuse and unsafe working conditions.
And don’t just think this happens in the UK; such horrible conditions for garment workers also occur in the USA and other European Union countries as well. In fact, there are so many cases of exploitation, we have chosen to focus on the UK for the sake of brevity in this article.
A Hierarchy of Pain
Perhaps most concerningly, researchers investigating garment worker exploitation have all recognised one thing in common. That is: the existence of a clear hierarchy across such supply chains which exploited the vulnerabilities of different worker groups – particularly migrants. At the ‘top’ of this hierarchy of workers are a small segment who are typically paid the national minimum wage but who still do not have an employment contract.
Following this is a much larger segment of predominantly female workers whose language or socio-cultural capabilities are limited. These workers are usually paid just £3 per hour. This is far from a living wage, and such workers are made to supplement their wages with welfare benefits. These workers report that they are regularly humiliated and abused by management, too.
At the bottom of the hierarchy are the most vulnerable – migrants. From students to undocumented migrants, these groups are often made to work for as little as £1 per hour, victim to non-payment of wages, regularly work night shifts and are dismissed without warning.
The reason for this is self-evident; those who do not have the required documentation to remain in the UK and who speak very little English are easy targets for such exploitation. Employers recognise that they have no choice but to work in such appalling conditions and heavily take advantage of this.
Since the release of the Sunday Times investigation implicating Boohoo and Nastygal, Home Secretary Priti Patel has voiced her ‘disgust’ with the situation. Yet perhaps she ought to reconsider why and how such vulnerable groups are so easily exploited.
According to Immigration Assist Services UK, under the government’s hostile environment policy for migrants, undocumented migrants and others who are explicitly targeted by this policy – such as asylum seekers and refugees – are essentially given no choice but to resort to precarious work in order to survive.
A Culture of Fear
It is this culture of fear that allows industries such as fast-fashion to exploit these groups with such ease. The pandemic has made workers even more afraid to speak out, as they fear losing their jobs. And those fears are real. Not only are garment working jobs precarious in the first place because they are often ‘under the table’ (i.e. not documented), but also because in the current Covid-19 anti-business climate, with many businesses suffering unprecedented losses, more and more companies are shedding employees due to lack of customer demand, and in some cases, they are completely shutting down.
For example, Zara has been forced to close over 1,000 stores to save cash, and will focus instead on e-tail sales. Zara reported a net loss of $465 million for February through April when 88% of its stores were closed due to the coronavirus.
Zara is just one of several retailers faltering amid the coronavirus pandemic. J. Crew filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last month, as did Neiman Marcus and JCPenney. The latter also announced plans to close nearly 200 stores as part of its necessary economic restructuring.
Coresight Research estimates that in general, up to 20,000 to 25,000 stores will close in the U.S. before the end of the year. In short, the retail industry has been very badly wounded – and this is having knock-on effects for not only garment workers, but all employees of these shops, from sales staff and HR to accountants and even the cleaning companies contracted to the stores.
In other cases, businesses are turning to a solution that saves them on employment costs AND that complies with strict Covid laws: automation. In fact, Boohoo is handling the fallout from the Leicester factory scandal by exploring one alternative way to manage its supply chain and keep production cheaply in the UK — automation. This means more humans will be replaced by machines, exacerbating an already untenable unemployment situation in all countries around the world.
If we are to truly tackle modern slavery in the developed world, businesses, NGOs and governments need to work closely together.
Adhering to employment law legislation may be difficult for some brands, especially those who have lost billions due to Covid, or small and medium-sized businesses with limited resources. But it’s not impossible, say James Marlow, an employment lawyer. He told Vogue Business: “It’s something that requires multidisciplinary attention, senior level attention and a cultural shift across organisations in the industry.”
Indeed, we agree. Governments should strongly penalise businesses breaking employment and human rights laws. The good news is that an EU law that’s soon to be passed could allow vulnerable communities like migrants to bring their case against the top-tier European parent company to a European court, instead of bringing the local supplier to court in a local court. This will make a stronger impact on companies that violate labour laws, and will help protect workers, no matter what their status.
Governments should also offer support for businesses during these times of the pandemic, ensuring as many jobs are kept as possible. They must also stop destroying the economy by prohibiting stores from selling everyday items like clothing. Sure, this may be helping the planet a bit, but it’s also catapulting people into extreme poverty.
By offering adequate support for businesses during times of Covid, and by easing restrictions on how businesses operate in terms of new, extreme safety measures, this can, in turn, offer support for workers by ensuring they earn at least some wages during shutdowns. This creates a win-win situation for workers and companies, and encourages them to keep human employees altogether and use machines instead, as Boohoo is doing.
Nations should also allow asylum seekers and refugees to work while they are awaiting their permanent resident status, and should take measures to ensure they are offered the same minimum wage as all other workers.
And finally, it’s up to us, the consumer, to demand that all workers in the garment industry are paid a fair wage. As always, voting with our wallets is the best way forward.
Additional reporting about slave labour in fashion came from this source.