Much hypocrisy over the exploitation of garment workers

By Saleh Mamon


When the Sunday Times on 5th July published its investigation into the horrific exploitation of garment workers in Leicester, the sensational press like the Daily Mail joined in the chorus of condemnation. This news made it to Reuters, the billionaire magazine Forbes and many other mainstream outlets. Workers at a Leicester-based producer of clothes destined for sale on Boohoo were being paid as little as £3.50 an hour, an amount significantly less than the £8.20 national minimum wage.

In June, Mind the Label, an organisation which has been campaigning for a fair deal for garment workers across the world published a damning report which found an alarming situation in Leicester, not only in terms of low wages, but their theft, denial of benefits, modern slavery conditions and poor health and safety conditions under COVID-19. The garment sweatshop remained open during the lockdown and the rules on social distancing and face masks were ignored, contributing to a higher level of infection in Leicester. Small-batch orders with a quick turnaround — common requests from fast-fashion brands such as Boohoo — encourage unauthorized subcontracting as suppliers race to meet deadlines. Urgent action was called for, beginning with the suspension of all Boohoo sales and production pending an investigation.

Home Secretary Priti Patel expressed anger, saying that she will not “tolerate sick criminals forcing innocent people into slave labour and a life of exploitation”.  These sick criminals are probably the millionaire donors to her party. The Tories in power since 2010 have done little about exploitation and enforcing the minimum wage for all workers, as the record shows.

As far back as 2014, a report by the University of Leicester found systemic abuse, with wages as low as £3 an hour, an almost complete absence of employment contracts, excessive and underreported hours, sometimes gross health and safety violations and limited enforcement of labour regulations and standards.

In 2017, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights chaired by Harriet Harman made a special visit to Leicester where they got briefings from researchers and heard many witnesses. While the government has produced an Action Plan in response to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and introduced some legislation including the Modern Slavery Act of 2015, the committee expressed disappointment on the ground over its modest scope and lack of new commitments.

It called on the government to demonstrate the same level of human rights commitment within its own procurement supply chains that it expects from companies, with expectations on all government suppliers to recognise trade union membership. Furthermore it asked for legislation that imposes a duty on all companies to prevent human rights abuses, making it a criminal offence if they fail to do so, including in lower levels of the supply chain.  It wanted a stronger role for UK enforcement agencies in tackling poor practices, particularly in UK garment manufacturing.

To tackle the supply chain accountability issues, Baroness Young of Hornsey tabled the Modern Slavery (Transparency in Supply Chains) Bill, which would rectify some of these problems. However the bill did not get beyond its first reading after the 2017-2019 Parliament was prorogued. The matter was not subsequently taken up by the Tory government.

Dispatches, a Channel 4 programme, sent a worker undercover into various factories in 2017 and reported that workers were paid well below the minimum wage. In May 2018 Sarah O’Connor of the Financial Times mounted an in-depth investigation into the “dark factories” of Leicester. In some factories, workers were paid as little as £3.50 an hour and no one was being held responsible. The garment industry in Leicester declined from 2001 because of capital outsourcing to poorer countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, etc. But new market forces have fuelled the revival of industry after the financial crash of 2008 with unbridled competition and super-exploitation.

Many organisations, including community groups, trade unions and Ethical Trading Initiative member brands have worked hard to address these issues over the years. However no significant progress has been made in resolving reports of illegal activities because of lack of support from central government or regulatory bodies.

The super-exploitation in garment factories has been an open secret for years. This is a government of millionaires which does not care a jot for the working classes. It is bent on deregulating under the banner of cutting down red tape and is at ease with rabid exploitation and low health and safety standards. It is more interested in chasing illegal workers in the garment factories than enforcing decent labour standards.  The number of labour inspectors in Britain is much lower than in comparable economies and the risk of effective inspection is clearly too low to worry businesses which are willing to undercut standards.

For capitalists in this sector, there is a reservoir of labour, especially women, to be exploited across the world. Just visit clothes chain stores and examine the labels where these items have been produced- Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, etc. Garment workers in sweatshops and homes are also in the heart of our cities with the same production model and lack of accountability that is seen in the global south.  If Leicester, then why not Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford, London and elsewhere? This is a national problem.

And from the party of labour, the Labour Party, there is no significant intervention from Keir Starmer or any shadow minister. A vacuum has enveloped the party. They have chosen not to speak out against the terrible exploitation of garment workers nor hold the government to account.

The TUC estimates that several million UK workers cannot enforce their basic rights with the companies for which they are ultimately working. Often the TUC appeals to the government to enforce the law. But inevitably this falls on deaf ears.

It seems that, by and large, trade unions have abandoned the lowest strata of workers. They have let the fragmentations of the working class take its course under neo-liberalism. They have not brought together the employed, the unemployed and the lower strata of workers together to take on the market forces that are unleashing the most intolerable conditions on the poorest workers. The latter are in no position to organise because any such move would lead to them being fired by the employers.

The unions have not come up with new strategies to ensure that we do not move to a de-unionised workforce of the American kind. This is ultimately the aim of the British capitalist class and the Tory party. The trade union movement should reach out to the communities of these workers, conduct research, establish an outreach and help them to become union members so that they can fight for better conditions.