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That “made in Britain” clothing tag may not be all that cracked up to be, according to new revelations about alleged human-rights abuses in England’s garment industry. Published by the University of Leicester’s Centre for Sustainable Work and Employment Futures in February, the 57-page report describes a “skewed playing field” characterized by small firms, fragmented supply chains, a vulnerable migrant workforce (largely South Asian, but also from Somalia and Eastern Europe), and an avoidance of statutory regulations. Researchers say that an examination of working conditions in the Lower Midlands revealed a “stark picture of noncompliance with fundamental standards,” including a reported average wage of £3 ($4.50) per hour—half the legal minimum wage of £6.50.
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MADE IN THE U.K.
The revival of domestic manufacturing in recent years has been a double-edged sword, says Nik Hammer, a lecturer in employment studies at the University of Leicester and the report’s lead author.
Although the U.K. garment industry grew by nearly 11 percent between 2008 and 2012, its long-term decline over the past few decades resulted in structural changes “so profound” that it’s a completely different animal today.
“Extensive research within Leicester as a U.K. sourcing hub found that the majority of garment workers are paid way below the National Minimum Wage, do not have employment contracts, and are subject to intense and arbitrary work practices,” Hammer writes in the report. “Equally, a number of manufacturers have made considerable investments to meet rising demand, only to find themselves undercut by competitors that violate minimum work and employment standards.”
Other evidence suggests that East Midland workers alone are being collectively denied an estimated £1 million in wages per week. “In other words, the underpaid wages constitute 20 percent of the approximate gross value added of the industry,” Hammer adds.
The report, which was commissioned by the Ethical Trading Initiative, a U.K. trade consortium, also details workplace conditions typically associated with less-developed nations. Practices endemic to the industry include inadequate health and safety measures, verbal abuse and intimidation, long hours with few breaks, wage theft, and little to no employee representation, according to researchers.
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A TANGLED WEB
Surprisingly, a language barrier, rather than improper permits or the specter of deportation, ranks chief among the reasons workers endure their circumstance.
“We have conducted a small scale survey amongst garment workers and had 70 percent of them saying that they speak English only with difficulties,” Hammer says. “This explains why they work in this sector—language skills are not central, and amongst other reasons, it also explains why they find it difficult to switch to other sectors.”
Any solution to present circumstances, he says, requires not only government legislation, which he says is ineffective on its own, but also the collaborative efforts of brands, manufacturers, and trade unions.
“In terms of drivers, on the one hand, these working conditions exist because manufacturers are confronted with the considerable market power of global brands, who can source globally, allow only low margins in lean supply chain systems, and operate purchasing practices that are too often focused on the lowest possible price,” he says. “On the other hand, authorities have found it difficult to enforce the relevant laws in this industry.”
Any enforcement of work and employment regulations, he says, will “remain problematic” unless both trade unions and employees have a voice.
“This is a considerable task that requires sustained collaboration of all stakeholders involved,” he adds.
[Via the Guardian]