The majority of workers in Leicester’s garment and textile sector are paid around £3 per hour, receive their wages cash in hand and do not have an employment contract, according to a new report.
The research, compiled by the University of Leicester and commissioned by the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), suggests the underpaid wage sum for the East Midlands amounts to an estimated £1m per week.
It also found that workers complained of breaches in health and safety practices, verbal abuse, bullying, and poor enforcement of regulation and labour standards.
Dr Nik Hammer, lecturer in Employment Studies at the University of Leicester, who led the research, said the largest segment working under these conditions were women, who had been in the UK more than 10 years and either had British citizenship or leave to remain and right to work status.
But many reported they spoke English with difficulty, which was why they found it difficult to switch to other sectors where language skills were required.
The report found that while apparel manufacturing in the UK, and the East Midlands, has grown in recent years, the landscape of the industry had changed.
“In the past we had large, iconic firms that were unionised – now we have just under 4,000 small and micro firms at an average employment size of 8.6 employees,” he said.
“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.
“On the other hand, authorities have found it difficult to enforce the relevant laws in this industry. Of course this is a difficult terrain where firms are registered and wound up again at astonishing speed but when it comes to corporate taxes, employers’ national insurance contributions, minimum wages, right to work permits, health and safety, trading standards, etc the relevant authorities generally have only insufficiently been able to enforce the law.”
ETI has launched a programme to address the concerns raised in the report including training and support for suppliers and manufacturers to build robust management systems and to ensure wages meet legal requirements, as a minimum. It also plans to work with trade unions, local groups and regional networks to tackle the issue.
Debbie Coulter, ETI head of programmes, said: “Leicester is an important manufacturing centre for many fashion brands and retailers and is part of a re-emergence in UK textiles manufacturing.
“We know there are good business practices within some parts of the sector, but this research has also found evidence of serious and endemic labour rights issues. No worker should be paid below the national minimum wage, or work in precarious conditions where they are at risk of exploitation. These are serious issues that need to be addressed with urgency, if this sector is going to thrive and prosper.”