On 23 March the UK went into lockdown as Covid-19 rapidly spread throughout the country. Many businesses were told to close-up shop, workers were told to work from home and the economy essentially shut down for the following four months. However, it has recently been reported that in factories supplying clothes for Boohoo in Sheffield, workers were forced to continue going to work, social distancing rules were breached and hygiene measures were never put in place.
An investigation into working practices at the Boohoo factory was launched after 28 workers tested positive for Covid-19. It was reported in the Daily Mail that workers shared cars on their way to work, employees went in despite feeling ill and many claimed that they felt their lives were put at risk.
The Boohoo factory in Sheffield wasn’t the only factory in the UK to be exposed for appalling and illegal workplace practices. In Leicester, which went into their own secondary lockdown, there are 1,000 garment manufacturers. Most of Boohoo’s UK suppliers are in Leicester and the sweatshop-like conditions in these factories have often made headlines. Despite lockdown, the factories remained open and working at 100% capacity, with reports claiming that there were no hygiene or social distancing measures in place. It has also been reported that workers were being paid less than half the minimum wage and often in cash.
Dangerous workplace conditions, exploitation and the complete disregard for health and safety in their factories are what makes fast fashion brands profitable. Low-paid, disposable workers under constant pressure to hit often unachievable targets mean that popular fast fashion brands can release clothes quickly and sell them cheaply. Supply chains in large fashion companies are incredibly opaque; fashion brands don’t own the factories and so often don’t know who is making the clothes and what conditions the clothes are being made in. Fashion brands like Boohoo could claim that because of this, they aren’t complicit in the exploitation of garment workers. However, as the industry demands large amounts of clothes are made quickly, factories are forced to underpay workers and make jobs precarious to ensure employees don’t slack. Boohoo reported a 45% increase in sales during lockdown, whilst their workers were paid as little as £3 an hour.
The UK government is also complicit in allowing this modern slavery to take place. Despite its acknowledgement that the Modern Slavery Act is ineffective at tackling poverty pay and sweatshop conditions, the government has refused to implement alternative recommendations put forward by an Environmental Audit Committee.
Only when these exploitative work practices threaten public health, and take place in the UK rather than in the Global South, does mainstream media pay attention and demand answers.
But there are more similarities between sweatshops in Bangladesh and garment factories in the UK than there are differences. Worldwide, most garment workers are women of colour and are often forced to stay silent about their working conditions due to issues of immigration, which has only been exacerbated by the UK’s Hostile Environment policy. In UK factories, women of colour are forced to work in cramped, harsh, demeaning conditions on poverty pay, unable to leave and unable to speak out. This explains why Leicester has gone into a second lockdown, as well as why people of colour have been disproportionately affected by Coronavirus.
Similarly, garment workers in poorer countries such as Bangladesh, India and Cambodia are disproportionately women, working in conditions that are akin to slavery, subject to poverty pay, long hours and dangerous working environments. These women work for the same fast fashion companies as UK workers, with business models that rely on workers’ subjection to these harsh conditions.
This isn’t a new, shocking discovery for fashion companies, the media or governments. Many shoppers know that their favourite high street shops rely on underpaid workers to mass produce clothing. We can also see that throughout history, garment workers have persistently had to fight for better working conditions, pay and rights. In 1911, 145 people died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, where female workers faced sexual harassment and assault, and all employees were subject to long hours. When the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union called for major reforms after the fire, the Factory Investigating Commission and The American Society of Safety Professionals were set up. In 2013 over 1,100 people were killed in the Rana Plaza Factory in Dhaka when it collapsed, after the owner dismissed safety concerns. Then, last year, 50,000 Bangladeshi garment workers went on strike, demanding better pay and safety regulations. Now, in 2020, coronavirus has affected garment workers around the world. Yet these workers have consistently been ignored and treated as dispensable.
Organisations such as Labour Behind the Label pressure companies to make sure they adhere to employment laws: they organise garment workers in trade unions and raise public awareness to create change in the fashion industry. They have also set up Fashionchecker.org alongside the Clean Clothes Campaign which allows consumers to see how different companies adhere to labour, sustainability and human rights laws.
Many activists, researchers and those in the industry have demanded that radical change be implemented by both governments and the companies themselves. Thulsi Narayanasamy, a Senior Labour Rights Researcher at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is demanding mandatory labour laws and a living wage for garment workers. Emily Kenway, a Senior Policy Adviser at Focus on Labour Exploitation is demanding governments to step in and fund labour inspectors, ensuring they are not working alongside or in support of immigration enforcement.
Whilst fast fashion companies rely on exploitative and harsh labour to make a profit, consumers, politicians and garment workers must collectively act to protect and improve the living conditions of garment workers by raising awareness of human and workers’ rights violations and consistently pressuring fashion companies to act humanely and legally.