UK garment manufacturers are not immune from sweatshop claims

UK garment manufacturers are not immune from sweatshop claims

The city at the centre of much of the UK’s textile and garment reshoring efforts has been criticised in a new report that found “widespread and severe violations of work and employment laws,” at its factories.

Research by the University of Leicester discovered that not only were workers in the city’s factories paid well below the legal wage, but there was also an absence of employment contracts, breaches in health and safety practices, and poor enforcement of regulation and labour standards.

The study, which was commissioned by the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), found the majority of workers earned just GBP3 (US$4.6) per hour, compared to a national minimum wage rate of GBP6.50).

On top of this, workers complained about health problems, inadequate health and safety standards, verbal abuse, bullying, threats and humiliation.

“Leicester is an important manufacturing centre for many fashion brands and retailers and is part of a re-emergence in UK textiles manufacturing,” explains Debbie Coulter, ETI head of programmes.

“We know there are good business practices within some parts of the sector, but this research has also found evidence of serious and endemic labour rights issues. No worker should be paid below the national minimum wage, or work in precarious conditions where they are at risk of exploitation. These are serious issues that need to be addressed with urgency, if this sector is going to thrive and prosper.”

In response to the findings of the investigation, the ETI has launched a programme to tackle issues raised in a report. This will include training and support for suppliers and manufacturers, helping them build robust management systems and to ensure that wages meet legal requirements, as a minimum. ETI will also work with trade unions, local groups and regional networks, collectively tackling the issue of in-work poverty – including providing information and support for workers so that they can raise concerns.

Another core focus will be on promoting good purchasing practices amongst brands and retailers, and helping them build strong business relationships with suppliers and factories.

Industry growth
The report notes that apparel manufacturing in the UK has grown by almost 11% between 2008-2012, mainly concentrated in major sourcing hubs such as the East Midlands, Manchester, and London.

Evidence collected as part of the research suggests that female workers mostly work under these conditions but, perhaps surprisingly, most have been in the UK for more than ten years and hold either British citizenship or have leave to remain and right to work status. But the majority also have limited English language skills (which are not crucial to garment factory work), which explains why they find it difficult to switch to other sectors.

Another “more vulnerable” group of workers was found to have no or insufficient rights to work full-time, and work at lower wage rates and under conditions worse than the core group of workers. This group tends to work in factories that have not been subject to social audits, producing garments that have been subcontracted without the knowledge of the lead firm or brand.

Report author Dr Nik Hammer, lecturer in Employment Studies at the University of Leicester, also noted that the landscape of the industry is not comparable to what it used to be. “In the past we had large, iconic firms that were unionised – now we have just under 4,000 small and micro firms at an average employment size of 8.6 employees.”

Dr Hammer believes this makes it hard for authorities to enforce the relevant laws in this industry, but also believes “these working conditions exist because manufacturers are confronted with the considerable market power of global brands, who can source globally, allow only low margins in lean supply chain systems, and operate purchasing practices that are too often focused on the lowest possible price.”

Skewed playing field
Ironically, the publication of the report, ‘A New Industry on a Skewed Playing Field: Supply Chain Relations and Working Conditions in UK Garment Manufacturing,’ coincides with the publication of Government figures that suggest the UK textile and clothing industry is worth nearly GBP9bn (US$13.71bn) to the country’s economy, and is experiencing year-on-year export and domestic growth.

More long-term, a report by PwC last year suggested that over the next ten years, the reshoring of textiles and apparel has the potential to increase annual output by around GBP1-2bn (at constant 2012 prices), adding 31,000 to 62,000 new jobs by the mid-2020s.

Both reports cite fast fashion sourcing trends and shorter lead times as acting in the UK’s favour, but suggest many hurdles still remain. In particular, barriers to growth include a lack of retailer knowledge about the UK supply base, an ageing workforce, endemic skill shortages and lack of investment.

But other challenges include the UK’s micro suppliers, typically employing less than ten employees, which are over-exposed to the market power of retailers and unable to quickly service large orders – along with the industry’s ‘sweatshop’ image. Both of which seem to be confirmed by the Leicester study.

Click on the following links for further insight: