Clothing factories in Leicester have been in the news again recently for under-paying workers making clothes for Boohoo. It gives UK manufacturing a bad name – and it has to stop.
Make it British has been following the growth of UK garment manufacturing over for over a decade, here is our ten point plan for ensuring that the good guys win out over the bad.
A recent report by Labor Behind the Label claimed manufacturers in Leicester were making clothes for Boohoo whilst operating in unsafe conditions. In particular, it highlights a potential link between a second lockdown in the city, and the fact that some factories owners were apparently expecting employees to work whilst ill with Covid 19.
The recent expose of poor working conditions in some factories in Leicester is nothing new. The situation has been going on for years and is by no means exclusive to the East Midlands city.
But Leicester is often singled out because not only does it have the largest concentration of garment workers in the UK (there are over 1500 garment manufacturing businesses in Leicester employing at least 10,000 people), it is also estimated that 80% of its half a billion pound turnover comes from manufacturing fast fashion for Boohoo.
The shocking standards in Leicester, where many factories are operating outside of the law, employing workers for under £4 an hour, is something that everyone in the industry has known about for ages. It is the fashion industry’s worst kept secret.
As far back as 2014, the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI) produced a report highlighting the skewed playing field that exists for garment manufacturers in the city; where those operating in unsafe conditions were winning contracts over the manufacturers playing by the rules because they were able to make things at a lower cost.
There have been numerous exposes in the press over the last few years, most notably a report by Sarah O’Connor in the Financial Times in 2018. The issues were also raised extensively in the Environmental Audit Committee’s Fixing Fashion report which included calling upon the government to take action on labour abuse amongst Leicester’s garment industry. The government rejected every one of the committee’s recommendations.
Back in October 2017, I was amongst sixty businesses and stakeholders that met at Leicester City Hall to look at ways in which retailers and manufacturers in Leicester could work together better and to address concerns around bad practice by some manufacturers in the area. That was three years ago, and nothing has changed since.
“What particularly upsets me is that there are some wonderful manufacturers in Leicester, who play by the rules, but they aren’t competing on a level playing field.”
Everyone knows that Boohoo has a stranglehold on the city, and until radical action is taken it will continue to go on. What particularly upsets me is that there are some wonderful manufacturers in Leicester, who play by the rules, but they aren’t competing on a level playing field. BooHoo consistently claim that they are unaware of the issues in their supply chain and following the EAC report said that they would sign up to the Ethical Trade Initiative, but over a year later have still not done so.
However, this article is not going to dwell on how we have got into this situation, instead I wanted to offer some ideas for solutions for how this may be fixed. It is a complex situation, and no one party is to blame.
Fingers point at the retailers for driving down prices, at manufacturers for not paying workers fairly and at the government for their inaction.
Others say that by buying fast fashion consumers are causing it, and influencers promoting unethical brands only exacerbates the problem.
It is not simple enough to say that the retailers should pay manufacturers more to make the clothes, or that the consumer should stop buying fast fashion because there are many parts to this supply chain and many stakeholders involved.
Furthermore, many of the ‘good’ factories in Leicester implicate the workers, saying that it’s difficult to find staff that want to go on the books because they would prefer to be paid for just 16 hours a week so that they continue claiming benefits.
But rather than continue to finger point, instead Make it British wants to try and find a solution.
We’ve pulled together a ten point action plan to help create a more level playing field amongst Leicester garment factories. We know that change is not going to happen overnight, but we hope that by offering this plan it may go some way to providing a solution to what is a very complex problem.
1. Audits by law
It should be a legal requirement for UK garment manufacturers to pass an industry recognised audit, or some other type of kitemark, which shows they’re regulated. Many retailers won’t work with factories that haven’t passed audits, but not all factories are required to have them currently.
The Fast Forward audit was introduced a few years ago and is used by retailers such as ASOS and M&S to ensure that their factories in the UK have met certain labour standards. Boohoo have not signed up to Fast Forward.
Government can no longer pass the buck and pretend this is not going on. Too many reports have been submitted to them and they have turned a blind eye. In the US the authorities have the power to embargo goods if they believe they’ve been made outside of the law, there needs to be a similar ruling in the UK. And the rules need to be enforced.
3. Transparent supplier lists
Retailers should be required by law to list their factories and raw material suppliers, and this should be an open database that is updated yearly. Fashion Revolution have a Transparency Index which is published yearly, but it is not compulsory, and many brands aren’t on it. The average score is just 23% – so there is a lot more that brands can do to improve.
4. Open costings
With open costings, where the factory provides a detailed cost breakdown for each garment made, buyers have a better understanding of how much the labour cost is for everything they buy.
One of the criticisms of Boohoo is that you cannot possibly make a dress and sell it for £5. Boohoo claim it is, because their dresses are very quick and efficient to make. An open costing would show if this is the case.
5. Performance related pay
Factories where workers are paid according to their output, rather than an hourly wage, are often much more efficient and have a much happier and more engaged workforce.
One factory using performance related pay is Fashion Enter in North London, which makes for ASOS, amongst others. They use a system called Galaxius which uses data to track the speed and output of every single factory worker.
This has not only made Fashion Enter’s factory 40% more efficient, it has also enabled it to pay some workers more than double the minimum wage.
6. Consumer education
How is a shopper supposed to appreciate the value of clothes if their prices are kept artificially low?
Brands, influencers and the media need to do more to educate consumers about what it costs to make clothes ethically. Several influencers have openly stopped promoting Boohoo following the recent allegations about poor working conditions.
The fast fashion retailers rely on these influencers to promote their clothes – they need to use their voice to educate their fans about who, where and how their clothes were made.
7. Regular factory visits
There is no excuse for buyers and designers not to pay regular visits to factories, particularly when making in the UK.
Yet in this recent report by Vogue Business, apparently most never meet the people making their clothes. But if they don’t visit, how can they really what conditions their clothes are being made in?
Boohoo used the excuse that they didn’t know about the unethical factory their clothes were found being made in. This is not good enough. They should be sending team members regularly to inspect production and meet with factory owners. The factories are in the UK – not China! They’re easy to get to.
Similarly, the authorities in Leicester need to be regularly inspecting factories to check they meet health and safety requirements. Currently factories can spring up with impunity knowing that they are unlikely to get a visit.
8. Firm order commitments
Given the recent spate of order cancellations due to covid 19, where retailers cancelled orders with factories across the world, this one is probably a long shot! But it’s also a great example of how huge corporations are abusing the smaller ones, and it needs to stop.
I know of several UK-made smaller brands who stuck by their factory and honoured orders during the pandemic. If they are able to do it, why should the big corporations get away with it?
Along with this also goes factory loyalty. Boohoo are known for dipping in and out of factories in order to get the best price. This inconsistency produces a feast and famine for factories that makes it unsustainable for them to stay in business whilst employing full time staff.
9. Whistleblowing made easy
Workers need to feel empowered to blow the whistle anonymously on poor managers and abusive factory owners. They also need to see that by raising awareness of the bad guys, that something is done about it by the authorities.
Unless there is seen to be action following their whistleblowing the vicious cycle of low pay and poor conditions will continue.
10.Spotlight the Good
Manufacturers, brand owners and retailers can all play a part in highlighting the great and good of UK manufacturing by showing the people that make their clothes at every opportunity.
They should all take part in Fashion Revolution Week – and shoppers should ask their favourite brands ‘who made your clothes?’
The more that we can shine the light on all of the fantastic manufacturers, not just in Leicester, but all over the UK, the better.
Do you have any other points that you think we should add? Would love to hear your thoughts.
Further reading / listening about Leicester garment manufacturing
Calling out Boohoo for using unethical factories – Dominique Muller, Labour Behind the Label – Make it British podcast July 2020
Dark Factories: labour exploitation in Britain’s garment industry – Financial Times May 2018
Leicester’s dark factories show up a diseased system – Financial Times July 2020
Labour Behind the Label ask Boohoo to go transparent – July 2020
Life as an Ethical Clothing Manufacturer in Leicester– Mick Cheema, Basic Premier – – Make it British Podcast February 2019
Can Leicester get back to its garment manufacturer heyday?– Make it British blog October 2017
Why Boohoo is winning and the importance of corporate social responsibility – Bhavik Masters IGTV July 2020
How supermarkets have killed the high street – Peter Grey, Just Elegant Make it British Podcast May 2019