UK’s demand for fast fashion hits workers’ welfare as Manchester garment workers ‘paid £4 an hour’

08 | 2019

Machinists are earning as little as £4 an hour – well below the National Living Wage of £8.21 an hour for over-25s, study finds

Garment workers in Manchester are being cheated out of wages and left vulnerable to exploitation as they produce designer clothes to feed demand for fast fashion, an investigation has found.

Machinists are earning as little as £4 an hour – well below the National Living Wage of £8.21 an hour for over-25s – according to “concerning evidence” uncovered by a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that usually investigates women’s working conditions in the developing world.

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One worker told the Homeworkers’ Worldwide organisation that she was forced to repay her employer £10,000 “in recognition of his support” after she was granted a UK passport.

Workers interviewed by investigators for the scoping study included women working in a factory producing school uniforms, a firm importing homewares and a distribution warehouse for an internet-based retailer sourcing clothes from Greater Manchester. Machinists in a factory making school uniforms and other fashion goods said they were paid a standard hourly wage of £4 an hour.

‘My boss complains because I work more slowly’

One Manchester worker told the study: “We’re paid in cash. They give us pay slips, but they only show 16 hours a week, whereas in fact we’re doing many more hours than that. We’re paid around £500 a month.”

Another worker said she now suffered with back problems from long hours lifting “very heavy” boxes of duvets, adding: “My boss complains because I work more slowly now.”

But two others who were paid well below the minimum wage said their manager was “supportive and flexible”.

“When it’s busy, the manager promises he’ll take us out if we work hard,” one said.

‘Unfair purchasing practices’

Manufacturers also told the investigators they faced challenges due to large retailers’ “unfair purchasing practices”.

They said this included driving down prices so it was impossible for them to pay workers properly – and leaving invoices unpaid for months, causing cash flow problems that could leave them unable to pay their workers – and allowing less scrupulous firms to undercut them.

One manufacturer said: “We’re a reputable company, we do things properly and meet the legal and ethical requirements, but then we don’t get the orders.”

Another said: “Some of these other companies are cutting corners, not paying the minimum wage and even stealing electricity. I went into one factory recently, and the electricity was wired up to bypass the meter.”

A third added: “The retailers are very dishonest. They’re all billionaires, yet they won’t pay invoices for months.”

Clothes — dress for success

UK textile manufacturing is booming with production up 25 per cent in an industry that a few years ago many thought was dead.

Retailers are increasingly turning to small British firms as they seek to sped up their turnaround times and get garments into stores.

Small-scale factories turn out instant copies of clothes worn by celebrities; they sell for a fraction of the price.

Figures suggest UK shoppers consume 26.7kg of new clothing per head (the highest in Europe) and Britons spend £52.7bn a year on fashion.

People in the UK send 235 million of items of clothing to landfill each year.

The NGO has made more than a dozen recommendations including urging retailers to ensure their purchasing practices do not undermine ethical standards.It comes after shocking conditions were found in Leicester last year, with workers paid £3 an hour to pack clothes for major brands such as River Island, New Look and Boohoo.

Lucy Brill, who wrote the study after speaking to manufacturers and workers in the Manchester region, told i: “We know that high street and online retailers often rely on UK suppliers to source last minute ‘fast fashion’ orders, but this research suggests that they can be reluctant to pay fair prices, and as a result, workers are at risk of exploitation.”

Textile manufacturing history

Around 3,000 people are employed in the textiles and garment trade in more than 180 factories in Greater Manchester – a city region that was home to some of the first cotton factories and once led the world in textile manufacturing.

The workforce specialises in designer clothes and fast fashion, workwear, homewares and the production of yarn. Firms typically employ between 10 and 20 people and some still operate from large tenement blocks where manufacturing has taken place for decades.

The report concludes: “We recognise that often employers are not in a position to make significant changes, because their customers, the main high street and online retailers, are unwilling to pay the higher prices that this would require.”

The study says high street firms should start giving incentives to UK manufacturers committed to improving conditions by offering them bigger or more regular orders.

The report says: “As fast fashion increases… there is a danger that these trends will only increase.”

December 1936: Cotton mill chimneys belching smoke in Manchester (Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images)

‘Steps are being taken to stamp out these practices’

UK retailers including John Lewis, M&S, New Look, Next, River Island and Shop Direct last year signed a protocol to work together to eradicate slavery and exploitation the textile supply chains.

Adam Mansell, the chief executive of UKFT, the British network of fashion and textile companies, said: “The UK garment industry is growing and while the majority of the sector operates in accordance with the law, we are aware that a small minority of firms do not.

”While progress is not as quick as we might like, we are confident that steps are being taken by both industry and government to stamp out these types of practices.“

A spokeswoman for the Ethical Trading Initiative, whose members include companies, trade unions and organisations working to promote ethical trade, said: “Clearly wages of £4 an hour are far below what is acceptable, and we cannot see any situation where that would be justified, but we would need to see the full report before being able to comment further.”

A new All-Party Parliamentary Group was formed earlier this month to analyse sustainability in the clothing and textiles industry, with Anne Main MP, the group’s chair said a ”proper debate“ about the issues is needed.

Primark, H&M Group and the Arcadia Group – the owner of Topshop and Miss Selfridges – are among firms have said they are committed to working with MPs.

Dean Kirby for iNews

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