Fast fashion

The need for speed: clothing ‘sweatshops’ in the UK

Garment workers getting paid £3 an hour, it’s a claim we’ve sadly become accustomed to over recent years. As our appetite for fast fashion and low prices continues to grow, clothing retailers continue their search for cheaper and faster ways to produce the clothes we wear.

Fast fashion

Although these disturbing headlines are becoming more frequent, we normally associate them with outsourced foreign workforces in the developing world, which makes a recent report from the University of Leicester quite unique.

The report titled, New Industry on a Skewed Playing Field: Supply Chain Relations and Working Conditions in UK Garment Manufacturing, claims that low wages, a lack of worker rights and poor safety standards are not reserved for garment workers in the developing world and are in fact present in the United Kingdom.

A growth industry

After a period of decline in the early 2000’s, driven largely by outsourcing to the developing world, the UK clothes manufacturing sector has seen a remarkable revival. It’s estimated that between 2008-2012, when most of the country’s economic activity was contracting, the garment manufacturing industry grew by almost 11 per cent.

A significant amount of this growth has been attributed to the proliferation of the ‘fast fashion’ business model, exemplified by firms like Zara and H&M. Fast fashion, dictates that clothes be produced in small batches and delivered to stores very quickly, if the items sell, the store will order more. The model is thought to be successful because it not only reduces the time taken to get fashion from the runway into stores, but also allows retailers to hold much lower inventory levels, maximising their cash flow.

Clearly, the need for speed in ‘fast fashion’ has meant that producing garments offshore has become less appealing and many firms are now looking to source much closer to home.

UK Garment Workers 

The report which focuses its efforts in Leicester, the traditional hub of British garment manufacturing, suggests that while ‘fast fashion’ has driven a revival in the British garment industry, the requirement for quick, cheap clothing has meant that British workers have been exposed to less than ideal working conditions.

Wages for the workers surveyed came in at around £3 and hour (less than half of the national minimum wage of £6.50), these wages were generally paid cash-in-hand and most employees held no contract of employment or workers rights. The report estimates that these underpaid wages would amount to roughly £1 million a week.

As well as inadequate wages, workers raised concerns over poor safety standards, verbal abuse, threats and health problems in the workplace.

Exploiting the vulnerable

The report suggests that the largest group of workers exposed to these poor conditions were women who have been living in the UK legally for more than 10 years, but possess a level of English insufficient to find other work opportunities. Also exposed to the employment law violations are groups of workers that don’t hold the requisite paperwork to legally work in the United Kingdom, these employees tend to work at an even lower rate of pay than the others survey in the study.

Structural change is required 

The report points to the fact the large retail organisations buying garments from these small factories need to take greater responsibility for the activities in their supply chains – this is a point I’ve argued often on Procurious. However, I do feel that in the case of ‘fast fashion’ operations, we as consumers need to take some the blame for these practices.

Our desire for ridiculously cheap, ‘fast fashion’ has created an fashion industry where margins are so low that supply chains must be as lean as possible in order for organisations to stay competitive. This rampant competition to the lowest price point is resulting in the exploitation of workers. Whether workers are located in Bangladesh or Leicester is irrelevant. As long as we, as consumers, continue to drive demand for £3 t-shirts and jeans, we are fuelling an industry that will inevitably focus on price above sustainability, both in the form of human rights and environmental protection.

Clearly, action is required from a legislative point of view in this case, wages need to pulled in line with national minimum standards and worker rights needs to be addressed, but as long clothing retailers continue to compete primarily on price, I can’t help but feel we’ll continue to see headlines like this.