A new study from international gender and labour rights NGO Homeworkers' Worldwide (HWW) has found some garment workers in Manchester, UK, are being paid about GBP4 an hour (US$4.84).

The organisation, which more often works to document women workers' experiences in countries such as India, Chile, and China, secured funding in 2017 for an initial scoping study on the textile and garment industry (TGI) within Greater Manchester.

Its report, 'The Greater Manchester textile and garment industry: a scoping study' , summarises the key findings from this seven-month-long outreach project which was prompted following Channel 4's Dispatches programmes revealing shocking conditions in garment factories in Leicester, with workers being paid around GBP3.

The project collated anecdotal information about the sector, and eventually completed interviews with two retailers, six manufacturers and five workers. These include two interviews with South Asian women workers sewing in a factory producing school uniforms, one with a former worker from the same company currently working for a homewares importer, and finally, with two Spanish workers in a distribution warehouse for an internet-based retailer that sources clothes from Greater Manchester. 

The report suggests machinists were paid a standard hourly wage of GBP4 an hour, although a few tasks were paid on a piece-rate for which some could earn more. They were all paid in cash, and given a payslip that showed them working part-time at minimum wage rates, but the actual amount they received was then calculated at GBP4 an hour, on the basis of the actual hours worked. Hours also varied depending on the orders that the factory received.

Another worker claimed an employer had essentially bribed her to pay him substantial sums from her wages, in recognition for his support in her application for a UK passport. 

No brands were mentioned as part of the report.

"Although only an initial overview, this report does document concerning evidence that workers are paid at rates well below minimum wage and also provides an anecdotal example of the ways in which a worker's irregular immigration status can leave them vulnerable to further exploitation," report authors state. "The conversation with employers again highlight the asymmetric power relations that other studies have identified between these very small manufacturers and the much larger retailers. As fast fashion increases incentives for production that is located closer to UK markets, there is a danger that these trends will only increase."

Commenting on Twitter, campaign group Labour Behind the Label said brands that were pushing manufacturers on price are fuelling the problem.

As part of its recommendations, HWW said manufacturers with better working conditions should be rewarded by larger orders, ultimately incentivising them to make changes and that invoices should be paid promptly.

It called for "adequately resource enforcement bodies, so employers face a realistic chance of prosecution should they fail to comply" and the severing of links between some enforcement bodies (eg. the GLAA) and UK immigration authorities, to encourage migrant workers to report their concerns.

Worker conditions were one of the issues mentioned as part of an in-depth probe by the UK Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) at the end of last year into the state of the British fashion industry.

It saw 16 fashion retailers – including M&S, Next, Primark, Debenhams and online apparel retailers including Missguided, Asos and Boohoo – quizzed by MPs on what they were doing to reduce the environmental and social impacts of the apparel they sell, amid concerns the so-called 'fast-fashion' business model encourages over-consumption and generates excessive waste.

The findings were presented to the government earlier this year with recommendations including the introduction of laws that require brands and retailers to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains in a bid to tackle labour abuses; charging brands and retailers a penny per garment sold to raise GBP35m to fund an apparel recycling scheme; and tax reforms to reward fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impacts and penalise those that do not.

The government was criticised for its responses as to how it planned to tackle the growing issue and the EAC has now launched a petition for parliament to reconsider and accept its proposals.