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This is a guest post by Eleanor Baldwin.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused major disruption among industries globally. Every sector has been called to put into action a new-normal: containing the virus and protecting employees as much as possible. Fortunately, most industries have actioned these new guidelines to the best of their ability – but there is one industry in particular which falls short: fast fashion.
Fast fashion, a term coined to describe consumer desire for catwalk designs at a low price, is no stranger to being called out for exploiting vulnerable individuals. The nature of fast fashion means that it thrives off cheap manufacturing and frequent consumption; two key components that often lead to modern slavery.
Those working in the garment industries frequently fall victim to worker’s rights issues such as excessive working hours and poor health and safety conditions. The issue is not new, but has been made prevalent by the pandemic, which has drawn a light on those working in horrendous conditions sometimes lacking any form of health and safety.
Whilst not regularly considered to be an issue in developed countries, research has proven otherwise. The UK purchases more clothes per person than any other country in Europe, according to a parliamentary report. This need for new clothes drives the industry to offer low price-tags at the expense of factory workers. Sourcing from within the UK is appealing to industry brands, as it offers a much quicker turn-around than sourcing overseas. Fast fashion has become so hugely popular that companies are being tempted to push employees even harder or to make even tighter cuts on pay and already dire working conditions.
Research found that, in Leicester, the majority of garment workers are paid below the National Minimum Wage. The average wage of industry workers is shown to be £3 an hour and holiday-pay is typically completely omitted. Factory staff were also subjected to working conditions that saw the ignorance of social-distancing measures, despite the area being on localised lockdown.
The denial of adequate wages or working conditions is not the only issue faced by employees, as 75% of workers are reported to not hold an employment contract. Moreover, work practices often result in health problems, verbal abuse and lack of breaks, with workers being offered little to no employee representation to defend themselves.
Those who are subjected to these brutal working conditions are often left with no other choice but to continue to work. Those with limited language or socio-economic restrictions, such as migrants on student visas or visitor visas and undocumented migrants, are among the most vulnerable to exploitation. Leicester is reported to have 33.6% of its residents born outside of the UK.
Despite the city’s child poverty rating of 37%, the workforce being frequently replenished through new arrivals into the UK means that risk of exploitation is incredibly high. Reports show that wages from the country of a workers’ origin are taken into consideration, despite this potentially not being in line with the cost of living in the UK. A lack of transparency is cited as the main problem contributing to this form of modern slavery.
This lack of transparency is perpetuated by the UK’s hostile environment and its treatment of those with insecure immigration status. The enforcement of the National Minimum Wage by HMRC relies on workers themselves to provide significant information regarding their working hours and conditions. For workers with language barriers or workers without required immigration permits, such complaint procedures prove ineffective. This leaves vulnerable individuals in a vicious cycle in which they are stuck in terrible working environments but cannot complain or take action.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the conditions of fast fashion workers, with Leicester’s garment factories being linked to the localised lockdown. Online retailer Boohoo has come under intense scrutiny for failing to action social distancing measures as well as paying workers far below minimum wage. With the nation in lockdown, demand for loungewear has significantly risen, as has pressure on garment workers to meet these demands.
The pandemic has increased the prevalence of industry issues to the extent that the National Crime Agency has reportedly visited various Leicester based factories in connection with modern slavery and human trafficking concerns. Modern slavery worries are evidently a very real and present matter not exclusive to less economically developed countries.
Whilst online retailer Asos distance themselves from Boohoo and other brands caught up in this scandal, calls for more transparency in the industry are increasing. The lasting result of the hostile environment in the UK means that vulnerable migrants are often being treated as second-class citizens and being denied basic human rights. Migrants, often fleeing horrendous conditions in the first place, are greeted with conditions unexpected of a country as advanced as the UK.
The pandemic has caused much distress for so many of us, but many hope it can be the much-needed catalyst for a new-wave of transparency in the garment industry and the better treatment of employees. Joining in on the latest fashion trend may seem like such a necessity to so many of us, but the real price-tag is not what is shown on the label. The true cost of a new jumper or pair of shoes lies in the denial of adequate pay and lack of ethical treatment of the factory workers behind the items. The outfit may be attractive, but the discriminative treatment of workers is not.
Eleanor Baldwin is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers based in the UK & Ireland
About Gina Caro
Gina is a content creator and award-winning blogger. Her aim is to help you live a more sustainable & simple life. Her blog covers zero waste, minimalism, wellbeing & thrift. She currently lives in Cornwall with her partner, two kids and Charles the dog.