The rise of ultra-fast fashion is fuelled by over consumption and increasing demand for cheap new items of clothing. Fashion retailers’ requirements for both speed and low cost production has resulted in low wages, illegal migrant workers and more recently a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19. In this blog, Dr Amy Benstead, Lecturer in Fashion Management in the Department of Materials at The University of Manchester, highlights some of the key issues in tackling exploitation within the UK fashion industry and what needs to change.
- UK textile manufacturing has the potential to thrive, yet all too often it is under the spotlight due to sustainability concerns.
- Labour exploitation in locations such as Leicester has long been an open secret.
- The global pandemic exposed an ‘open secret’ of exploitation in the UK Fashion Industry, with reports claiming that there could be an estimated 10,000 modern slavery victims in UK textile factories.
- Collaboration between government and industry is needed to strengthen legislation and create a level playing field so that the industry can continue to grow sustainably.
Over a year has passed since the increased media attention surrounding factories supplying the online fashion retailer Boohoo, due to allegations of underpayment of wages and unsafe working conditions. This, however, is not a new problem. Labour exploitation in locations such as Leicester has long been an open secret, with reports claiming that there could be an estimated 10,000 modern slavery victims in textile factories. The pandemic has shone a new light on this important issue and also exacerbated the vulnerability of workers in this industry.
Manufacturing fashion textiles in the UK provides the opportunity for retailers to react quickly to the demand for fast fashion. However labour intensity and low margins in a higher cost location where wages are higher, increases the risk of social problems such as forced labour and human trafficking. It is this exploitation of workers that is also preventing many retailers from increasing UK sourcing which could otherwise have wider economic benefits. Retailers, however, cannot tackle complex problems such as modern slavery in the UK alone, with issues relating to employment law, tax evasion and benefit fraud. Policy frameworks and legislation consistently fail to protect workers from unacceptable conditions and even severe abuses, including forced labour, all of which often go undetected in factory audits.
A report published in July 2021 by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion urges the government to put an end to exploitation within the garment industry. A key recommendation of the report is to expedite legislative changes to the Modern Slavery Act as well as introduce a Garment Adjudicator to ensure that certification systems and a verified supplier base are in place for factories in order to create higher levels of trust in the UK fashion sector. Despite growing concerns about human rights damage caused by the fast fashion industry, current legislation lacks incentives and regulation. Action from government is required to provide clear time frames in order to strengthen the UK Modern Slavery Act. More Parliamentary time must be set to debate this issue and government needs to work collaboratively with industry stakeholders to ensure that they meets high social standards.
The worker’s voice
When it comes to protecting workers, governments often lack the political will and/or resources, and clothing brands often lack the financial incentive to enforce already lacking policy frameworks. UK Modern Slavery legislation encourages firms to be responsible for the actions of their suppliers and improved supply chain transparency is needed. Audit programmes have been developed with the interest of brands at the forefront. They serve to demonstrate due diligence to the brands’ stakeholders, and to evaluate the economic and reputational risk posed by business relationships with a particular factory or region. This “brand-focused” practice is seen most commonly in supplier codes of conduct. The purpose of the codes of conduct is to effectively push responsibility for compliance onto factories, who have less money and power than brands and yet a very high economic incentive to meet the criteria of the codes to earn and maintain the brands’ business. My work at The University of Manchester focuses on the detection of modern slavery and highlights the importance of worker voice in the fashion industry. Though many factory audits include a component of “worker voice” through interviews of a few selected workers, these interviews are used by auditors to detect modern slavery red flags rather than a full expression of workers’ voice. There is a fundamental need to show the value in worker voice to ascertain the genuine position of what is happening and ensure workers are safe-guarded.
While it is acknowledged that audits can be catalysts for driving a positive and sustainable change in global supply chains, they are only a snapshot of a point in time and could be deemed to be more beneficial for a brand and its reputation and “being seen to do the correct thing” as opposed to bridging the genuine needs and requirements of workers. Given the criminal levels of exploitation, and power imbalances between retailers, factories and workers, a worker-focused approach is required and whistleblowing is to be encouraged. The worker’s voice is needed to uncover the reality of their working environment. Workers need to be educated on their rights enabling them to request advice, report issues and assume a more active role in the detection and remediation of issues. Informed and empowered workers will therefore help to address labour exploitation, and this can only be achieved by government and industry working together collaboratively to understand the needs of the workforce.
Creating a level playing field
Companies need to accept that improving transparency and developing a worker-focussed approach requires significant costs. However, such investment is meaningless if internal practices are not addressed and continually reviewed. Through their purchasing practices, retailers continue to exert pressure on their suppliers to both meet their commercial and social standards. To raise industry standards, all stakeholders need to take an active role in creating a level playing field
Change will take time. Companies need to acknowledge that modern slavery might be present in every supply chain. There is no quick fix to solving this abhorrent issue. A multi stakeholder approach is needed that ensures a worker driven prospective is achieved to contrast worker voice directly against current due diligence practices which will drive the necessary remediation and change. The UK fashion industry needs investment to encourage sustainable manufacturing and improve current jobs, which in turn could result in bringing more back to the UK. Greater government collaboration is therefore needed with industry to create a thriving sustainable business model.
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