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Modern slavery: the dark truth of the UK’s fast fashion garment industry

In 2020, you may be surprised to learn that modern slavery is no longer an issue of the past. Even more surprising is I’m not talking about third world countries or countries that lack workers’ rights laws. This is happening right now in the UK.

Earlier this month, Andrew Bridgen MP raised the concern to parliament that there are currently a feared 10,000 garment workers in Leicester trapped in conditions that can only be described as modern slavery. Working against their will for as little as £3 an hour, we ask, how has this happened?

Unethical business owners are trapping workers in illegal conditions by trafficking them from other European countries with the promise of a better life. They are enticed by the dream that many share of a better future and a secure job. What they receive when they arrive is not only unethical, but illegal. The consequence of breaking free from these awful conditions? Being sent back home.

They’re trapped. The first question I asked myself when I heard this story was: “why haven’t they reached out for help? How are they trapped?”

Unfortunately for many of the people that are being trafficked, what waits for them back home can often be much worse than the conditions they’re subjected to here. The fear of deportation and constant intimidation from the people that employ them are sadly enough to keep them quiet.

Beyond fear, for many of the European migrant workers don’t know how to get help. Many of them aren’t aware of the public services and charities that are available in these kinds of situations. So, they continue to work and put their lives in danger, all so we can buy our fashions as cheaply as possible.

Modern slavery is outlawed, how has this gone unnoticed?

Leicester has a long history of being the garment production mecca of the UK for hundreds of years. Dating back to the 1500’s, Leicester has been the go-to place to produce and distribute clothing and footwear.

Pre-fast fashion, this was also an incredibly lucrative business. Before businesses expedited production to other, cheaper countries, this was an industry that allowed local communities and the economy to thrive. Back in 1988, the clothing and textiles industries made up 9 percent of employment in the manufacturing industry.

It was something to be proud of. It was a key cog in the industrial machine. Now? Not so much.

This all started with a specific case. Last July, Leicester Police arrested and charged a man with four counts of holding a person in slavery or servitude and four counts of arranging or facilitating travel of another person with a view to exploitation. This case triggered an onslaught of surveys and investigations which resulted in the uncovering of this truly monstrous situation.

The man was trafficking people from other countries to be forced to work in factories, into prostitution, to even work in construction for next to nothing. The book doesn’t stop at the garment industry, this issue is much bigger than that.

HomeWorkers Worldwide, a labour rights NGO, conducted a survey on the garment industry that included 182 companies operating across the region, and found that this situation is much worse than they first thought.

It was reported in the survey that bosses were paying them cash in hand and dishing out payslips that stated they were working for £7.50 an hour for 16 hours a week. In reality, they were working over 40 hours a week and taking home around £500 a month.

Modern slavery and fast fashion

One of the biggest issues we’re seeing at the moment with fast fashion is the disconnect between production and consumer. We’ve all been in that situation. You’re bored and scrolling through ASOS or Pretty Little Thing. You find the perfect dress for that friends’ birthday in two weeks, and it only costs £15! How could you not? This dress would cost at least £45 elsewhere. So, you buy it, you’re chuffed, you wear it and you look amazing.

Even better, there’s no catch! Except there is. Let’s think about this a little bit. If that dress cost £15, factoring in the fact they need to make a profit (a big one at that), and consider distribution costs, how much do we think that dress cost to make? Pennies. So how much do we think the factory workers are getting paid? Pennies.

Everything comes at a cost, especially when we aren’t conscious when we consume. But it’s easy to fall victim to the shiny dress at the super low price, because these companies a scarcely transparent about their workers conditions. It would be bad business if everyone knew the truth of how these businesses were treating their workers.

Similar to theatre, we don’t think about what goes on behind the curtain, because they don’t want us to know. They want us to buy into the show they’re putting on. But if we continue to ignore what’s behind the curtain of fast fashion production, workers will continue to suffer. Modern slavery is no longer a thing of the past.

Supply & Demand

Supply and demand is just business. The more consumers want, the more the manufacturers must make. That’s fine, but clothing businesses are no longer just independent boutiques down the road, or luxurious, expensive fashion houses we dare to dream to afford one day.

Thanks to the internet, and an insanely competitive market, clothing is coming to us all fast and cheap. They’ve essentially made a rod for their own back.

It’s all well and good creating super cheap apparel at low costs for consumers, but not only is it not sustainable for the environment, it’s not sustainable for business. Unless, of course, they continue to find ways to reduce cost as much as possible.

This business model has forced competitors to do the same, which has forced them to keep it up, or fall behind. Now all fast fashion businesses are fighting for your coins and reducing prices lower and lower until no one else can keep up.

We have to get it into our heads that the less we demand, the less they supply.

I had a bit of a problem with buying fast fashion until recently. I had the ASOS unlimited next day delivery, I would order at least once a month. On the frequent occasion of a friends’ birthday, Id order two to three outfits, mix and match, and send back what I didn’t like.

This year I say no more. To this point I haven’t even perused ASOS, and when it was my friend’s birthday last month, I turned to my own wardrobe and found heaps of clothes I’ve never worn before.

Call to action

This is the case for many of us. There are usually heaps of clothes hidden in our wardrobes that we’ve barely worn. Or even never worn. I’ve been guilty of wearing an outfit for an event, posting the picture on Instagram, and think “well I can’t wear that one again because everyone’s seen it”

This is the mentality we need to break free from. It’s causing more damage than we can even imagine.

I’m going to challenge you, consider this your call to action…

The next time you have a birthday, a party, any kind of event. Turn to your wardrobe, mix and match your clothes, see what you can put together, and get creative! You’ll be surprised at what you can put together, and what you find that you completely forgot you owned.

Failing that, turn to a sustainable source. Charity shops and second-hand shops are your best bet. If you’re up for the research, find some local, ethical, and environmentally conscious stores. This is slightly more difficult because, as we’ve seen here, where they source their clothing can be difficult to decipher.

We’ve talked a lot here about sustainable fashion and the damage that fast fashion causes the environment. We never could have imagined the kind of effects this industry could be having on the workers right on our doorstep. In a country that prides itself on workers’ rights and national minimum wage. If preserving the environment is not enough to abandon fast fashion for good, helping to end modern slavery definitely is.

This is a heavy story, but it’s not all bad. The good news is we hold the power. Knowledge is power, and now that we know the dirty secret of the UK’s garment industry, we can put an end to this once and for all.


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