Leicester’s garment manufacturing district has been getting attention in recent weeks due to allegations of unfair work practices being carried out by Boohoo, a popular online retailer known for its young target market and constantly changing trends. Boohoo, co-founded by Mahmud Kamani and Carol Kane (with a net worth of $1 billion for Kamani and $100 million for Kane in 2018), is under fire for underpaying their factory workers by a large margin, at an average pay way below minimum wage.
We often associate poor working conditions and unfair (often forced) employment practices with developing countries, and when looking at our clothing labels we often see them stating ‘Made in China’ or ‘Made in Bangladesh’. Despite tragedies such as the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed 1,138 garment workers and injured many more, fast-fashion practices only seem to be getting faster and more wide-spread.
This can seem like a distant reality for many of us in what we consider “developed” countries, but how much of it is happening on our own doorstep? Is Leicester a cruel anomaly? Unfortunately, it is not.
Boohoo’s manufacturing practices in Leicester, in our very own Great Britain, seem like something from the time of the industrial revolution, where it was not uncommon for adults and children to work extreme hours, and to lose limbs in the machinery of industrial textile looms. An estimated 10,000 people could be working in slave-like conditions in the UK today, within unsafe working environments, blocked fire exits, and an estimated hourly pay of £3.50 (with some women being paid as little as £1 an hour). The ‘Made in Britain’ label, worn like a badge of honour by many companies, seems no longer so honourable. In her 2017 Vogue article titled ‘Did You Know Sweatshops Exist in The UK?’, Tamsin Blanchard points out that due to the rise in demand for British manufacturing, as shipping costs from Asia become increasingly expensive, it has become cheaper for retailers to manufacture here at home.
But at what cost to the garment workers?
A similar story rings true in America, especially in New York and Los Angeles. Popular retailers such as Fashion Nova, often promoted by glamorous and beautiful influencers, manufacture their low-cost garments right on their Californian doorstep. The not so glamorous side however, is the fact that these celebrity-wannabe garments are also made by underpaid workers in unsafe sweatshops. This allows for a quick production turnaround and the constant promotion of almost weekly micro-trends. Unfortunately, like the many-headed Hydra, illegal sweatshops seem to appear multiplied as soon as one is cut off; they show up weeks later under different names and ownership, making them almost impossible to eradicate.
European production also uses the ‘Made in Europe’ label as a deceitful guarantee of quality and fairness, however countries such as Ukraine, Hungary and Serbia are a paradise for retailers wishing to manufacture goods cheaply and on local terrain. Fashion United’s Vivian Hendriksz reports that many Ukrainian garment workers earn as little as €89 per month- five times less than the country’s estimated living wage, often leaving many workers to go without food.
The issue lies in a convoluted supply-chain.
It seems that when faced with allegations of unfair pay and slave-like working conditions, retailers shake off responsibility by claiming their approved factories are at fault for sub-contracting to sweatshops without their knowledge. Maybe that’s true (maybe it’s not?) It’s not uncommon for large fashion companies to hide behind many middle-men factories, further protecting them in a twisted and deceitful supply-chain.
When a story comes to light (such as Boohoo in Leicester) it is often the factory who deals with the repercussions of a government investigation- and rightfully so. However, what about the retailer? Should it not be up to the brands to set terms and standards under which manufacturing should be carried out? It is easy enough for large fashion retailers to come out with sweeping statements claiming no tolerance for “any incidence of non-compliance especially in relation to the treatment of workers” (Boohoo, 2020).
Vague statements are not enough anymore.
There is a growing demand for both internal and external supply-chain transparency, with both employees and consumers wanting to know what they are voting for with their money. Supply-chains are a complicated thing, often reaching all across the globe and interacting with many communities and environments, which is why consumers increasingly wish to see how their products are made, who makes them, and what impact their purchases have on the environment. Having a more transparent supply-chain is not only to the benefit of the manufacturers and consumers; transparency holds brands accountable. This sort of accountability allows retailers to make a large profit, all while doing good across the supply-chain… and if they don’t? The “reputational cost of failing to meet these demands can be high,” state Alexis Bateman and Leonardo Bonanni for the Harvard Business Review. It is no longer enough to claim no knowledge of mistreatment and underpaying of employees (aka modern-day slaves) and brushing it aside; business as usual.
We need to aim to hold brands accountable for their actions, instead of accepting waffly and often vague apologies they post on Instagram, followed by little-to-no action. We also need to hold ourselves accountable for the choices we make, even if that choice is whether or not to buy that £5 top.
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