For the last three years, the Ethical Trading Initiative has raised serious concerns about very low wages and poor working conditions in Leicester’s garment trade. In Undercover: Britain's Cheap Clothes, Chanel 4's flagship current affairs programme Dispatches examined wages and working conditions in Leicester factories.
Research commissioned by ETI from the University of Leicester in 2014 confirmed systemic abuse in Leicester with wages of £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.
ETI was so concerned that it established a Leicester garments working group of retailers, unions and NGOs.
Since then, action has happened. ETI members source from far fewer factories. Links are being forged with local enterprise partnerships, Community union and official bodies such as ACAS. ETI members have also introduced Fast Forward, a collaborative company initiative to improve legal and ethical labour standards in factories, which includes forensic auditing techniques and a worker helpline.
Yet, as Dispatches shows, not enough has changed.
Debbie Coulter, ETI spokesperson said: “Leicester is important. It is a major part of the re-emergence of UK garment manufacturing. We know there are good business practices within some parts of the sector, but very low wages and poor working conditions remain, are completely unacceptable and must be addressed.”
ETI also points out that leading retailers are increasingly frustrated. As household names, ETI members are inevitably held responsible for the workings of the sector. Yet they source from a relatively small number of factories – less than one in five of what are an estimated 580 workplaces across the city and wider region.
Debbie Coulter said: “ETI understands that its members, River Island and New Look, whose garments were filmed by Dispatches, had previously acted to address issues.”
Both retailers told ETI that the factories in which filming took place had been de-listed because they failed to meet the standards expected. Subsequently, suppliers were told not to subcontract further orders but instructions were ignored, breaching contract.
“Leicester is booming,” said Debbie Coulter, “but it is booming primarily on the back of a growing band of start-up very low-cost Etailers and Cash and Carry merchandisers supplying market traders and cheap high street independent stores. The latter in particular often work with unscrupulous manufacturers and have little regard for the workers who make their clothes.”
ETI is advising its members to consider imposing significant sanctions against those factories that breach contracts and is calling for a hard-hitting and uncompromising multi-sectorial response. It wants agencies including the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), the Health and Safety Executive, HM Revenue and Customs, politicians and others to act.
“The full force of the law should be applied. Some local factory owners are preying on vulnerable groups, including South Asian women with limited English or undocumented migrant workers,” said Debbie Coulter.
But ETI believes that retailers must also address transparency issues.
Debbie Coulter said: “The situation is so grave in Leicester – with wages hardly wages at all, and sometimes appalling health and safety violations – that responsible retailers must now consider how they conduct their business in the city.”
ETI is calling on retailers to address costing strategies, including ring-fencing labour costs. It wants them to work more with trade unions, as it believes a unionised workforce will result in better working conditions and a safer environment. And it says that audits must be fit for purpose; the right questions must be asked by experienced auditors, workers must be engaged and there must be collaboration across the sector.
Released by Jane Moyo, Acting Communications Manager, ETI on 0207 841 4350
Notes for Editors
New Look and River Island have been active members of ETI as well as ETI’s Leicester Garments Working Group since its inception. Specifically, New Look was a strong advocate in calling for the group to be established and initiated the Fast Forward programme in the UK. ETI understands that both retailers are investigating the situation while looking to offer support to affected workers; in view of the current circumstances relating to unauthorised subcontracting, ETI recognises their frustration over what has happened.