It has been seven months since Channel 4’s Dispatches exposé found that some subcontracted garment factories in Leicester were paying workers less than half the national living wage.
The issues in Leicester have been the elephant in the room for a long time, but it was still a shock to see such low standards laid bare in factories that supply UK fashion retailers.
The industry reacted by calling for stronger, wider-reaching regulation and more effective enforcement. Yet, while we hear conversations between trade bodies and government departments are ongoing, little has been visibly done to address this problem.
In an interview with Drapers last week, New Look CEO Anders Kristiansen said he would “love” to source more clothing in the UK, but cannot because the standards in some factories are so low. His comments were measured, but in an article that later appeared in The Times, he was quoted as claiming the “vast majority” of factories in Britain underpay staff and fall short of health and safety standards.
Champions of the UK manufacturing sector rushed to defend it, arguing that most home-grown factories actually maintain high standards and should not be tainted by a few bad apples. While this is true – and it is important to celebrate the UK’s many ethical manufacturers – we cannot ignore the fact that dodgy employment practices are happening on our doorstep. New Look should not be criticised for raising this issue. It has voiced legitimate frustrations, and put this issue back into the spotlight at a time when demand for UK manufacturing is soaring, thanks to weakened sterling and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
In July, the government vowed to impose tougher measures on large employers that allow exploitation to take place in their supply chains – and fashion retail was a particular area of focus. A report on workplace exploitation will be published later this year.
The government must take a hard line on this, and make it impossible for less-scrupulous “pile it high and sell it cheap” retailers to turn a blind eye to bad practices. Meanwhile, we need proper investment in Leicester to sort out this issue once and for all.