Fast fashion has become entrenched into society today. Fuelled by the Instagram generation who, when faced with the outfits of their favourite celebs, want to instantly buy the pieces they love.
To keep up with this ever-changing Instagram culture, consumer demand and competition to look the ‘most trendy’, fashion retailers seek to find the cheapest and most efficient workers.
But is it possible to make cheap clothes when the minimum wage in the UK is £8.72 an hour for over 25s? Is fast fashion ever free or is someone somewhere paying? Both are questions that the world of fashion desperately needs answers to.
A recent report by Oxfam stated that it takes a CEO of one of the world’s top five fashion brands just four days to earn the same amount that a Bangladeshi garment worker earns over their lifetime. This is undoubtably and inherently unjust.
The severity of the worker exploitation in Bangladesh and their appalling working conditions was brought to public attention in 2013 by the Rana Plaza Factory collapsing. It killed 1,138 people. Found amongst this rubble were labels such as Mango and Primark – both fast fashion brands regrettably renowned for their worker exploitation.
But if these horrific conditions have been known to the public for so long why has nothing been done? The answer seems to lie within one category: distance.
It is easy to distance ourselves from worker exploitation when there is land and sea between us, but when the problem is on our doorstep it becomes harder to ignore.
As fast fashion grows, companies are keen to cash in on the burgeoning demand, and so the need for quick, close to home work increases. As the competition rises the prices simply must lower in order to compete.
As a 2018 government report stated, fast fashion has created a microeconomy in which larger factories that use machines are outsourced by smaller rival factories using underpaid workers
“Speed is our main USP and the UK is as quick as you can get”, said Nitin Passi the founder of the fast fashion online retailer Missguided, again frequently bashed for their fast-fashion outlook towards supporting workers. So, is this urgent need for speed and quick production time at many worker’s expense?
This is the case with the fast fashion factories in Leicester known as: ‘dark factories’. This nickname arose due to the fact that their conditions reflect those in the factories of the 19th century Industrial Revolution. As a 2018 government report stated, fast fashion has created a microeconomy in which larger factories that use machines are outsourced by smaller rival factories using underpaid workers. So, how do factories get away with exploiting their workers?
Saeed Khjii chairman of the Textile Manufacture Association of Leicester, quoted by the Financial Times, states that it is common to under-record hours so that worker’s payslips look as if they have been paid minimum wage. Sadly, in reality the average wage in a ‘dark factory’ is £4.25 an hour according to Khjii.
Because retailers offer such low prices per garment that they simply ‘cannot be manufactured ethically’
In 2017, Dispatches (a programme aired on Channel 4) sent a worker undercover into various factories, both in 2010 and 2017. On both of these occasions, workers were paid well below the minimum wage. In the most recent episode, the workers made clothes for New Look, River Island, Boohoo and Missguided.
The severity of the problem is reinforced by a study conducted by the University of Leicester in 2015, this was commissioned by the Ethical Trading Initiative (an alliance of major retailers and unions). The study concluded that the majority of the city’s garments workers were paid less than the minimum wage. Saeed claims this is because retailers offer such low prices per garment that they simply ‘cannot be manufactured ethically’.
Not only are these workers under paid, but they are also forced to work in inhumane conditions. One worker, who did not want to be named, spoke to the Financial Times stating that he had ‘worked in places with blocked fire escapes, old machines and no holiday or sick pay’.
Furthermore, boohoo is now facing modern slavery claims, as a report showed that workers were being paid as little as £3.50 an hour. During Covid-19 and the consequential lockdown, Boohoo made significant financial success, but following the pattern discussed it seems this ‘success’ was at the expense of their workers.
A report by the campaign group Labour Behind the Label, has put Boohoo at the centre of Leicester’s covid-19 outbreak. This revealed that the factories used by the company had in fact stayed open throughout lockdown. The clothes made in the factory were under the brand Nasty Girl, a fast fashion label owned by Boohoo.
A perfect example of capitalism and consumerism within our society
Labour Behind the Label also said that it had received reports from workers of alleged ‘furlough fraud’, low wages and modern slavery, according to the independent. Labour Behind the Label has also released it has had reports of employees being told they must show up for work, even if they showed symptoms of COVID-19.
In a statement, the groups campaign manager said, “it is heart breaking to see grotesque inequality when some people profit so much while there are workers at the bottom of the chain whose lives are being put as risk”. A perfect example of capitalism and consumerism within our society. It seems that we have become a society that values our desire to have the latest £10 on trend item, over the rights and health of millions of people.
But this is in no way morally right nor is it something we can legally or ethically ignore. We must as consumers take some responsibility and acknowledge the full picture of how our clothes are made no matter how uncomfortable this may be. We must ask #WhoMadeMyClothes, change our shopping habits and embrace an ethical and sustainable fashion.
If you wish to find out more about this topic please utilise these resources:
- PayUp movement, demanding that fashion brands honour commitments to over sea workers
- The Fashion Revolution and Fair Wear Foundation
- Dirty fashion secrets
- The true cost
- Laura Bravos, how to break up with fast fashion
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