Modern slavery – The Dark Side of fashion

View of production floor at Fashion Enter, Haringey. Image: Charlotte Hart

By Emilie Warner and Charlotte Hart

It’s been long known how factory workers in developing countries, particularly those in Bangladesh, are often mistreated and forced to work long hours for fast fashion. The devastating collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh in 2013 made headlines worldwide as a clear example of modern slave labour.

But what many don’t realise is this is now happening in the UK. Fast fashion is coming back to the West as the demand for a quick production turnaround is rife, resulting in overseas workers getting caught up in human trafficking and labour exploitation over here.

Fashion Enter (FE), a garment factory in Haringey, is shouting about their ethical production practises as a shining example of what all factories should look like in the UK to eradicate modern slave labour.

Caroline Ash, FE Production Director, said: “Slavery does exist in the UK. There is a dark side of fashion production because big brands don’t want to wait three months for overseas suppliers. Factories here can turn garments around in as little as six weeks.”

Such a quick turnaround for a bulk order is attractive for fast fashion brands but it means the problem is only moving from developing countries to the UK as workers are trafficked here. The 2018 Global Slavery Index estimated that 136,000 people are living as modern day slaves in Britain – the majority from overseas – who are forced to work in nail bars, factories and farms.

A machinist at Fashion Enter

Leicester and now London are prolific for being fashion production hubs in the UK, but it is the former where most problems lie. According to a report by Apparel Insider, Leicester is where many slave labourers are taken as there are 700 garment factories supplying big brands, including Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing. According to the report, many illegal practises are taking place as factories are paying below minimum wage – £5 a day is considered top pay – and are failing to comply with basic health and safety measures, such as emergency exits being bolted shut.

Anti-slavery campaigning organisation Unseen define slavery as someone who is:

  • forced to work through mental or physical threat
  • owned or controlled by an ’employer’, usually through mental or physical abuse or the threat of abuse
  • dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as ‘property’
  • physically constrained or have restrictions placed on his/her freedom

Shedding light on why this issue is growing, Ash said: “The problem is there aren’t enough skilled machinists in this country. It’s not something you or I could do, it takes many years of practise to reach the standard of my machinists. Not one of my employees is English.”

A machinist at Fashion Enter

Asad Rehman, Director of War On Want, an anti-poverty and exploitation organisation, told the Holloway Express that those who find themselves in poverty are forced to become part of modern-day slavery in the fashion production industry. “Over the last 10 years we have seen the same model of employment in Bangladesh, Cambodia and China brought here. However, the existing regulations enforced are so few that factory inspections allow many unscrupulous employers to escape without much attention.”

Big brands are being held to account. The UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires organisations with an annual turnover of at least £36m to make a public statement on steps they are taking to identify and prevent modern slavery in their operations and supply chains.

However, despite this transparency, not all companies are following through with protecting all workers.

Rehman added: “We believe big brands illustrate the problem of supply chains. They won’t take responsibility and they’ll just say: ‘We didn’t know about this exploitation’. They should be held accountable, guarantee people are paid a living wage and there is dignity at work, provide safe conditions and allow trade unions to protect peoples’ rights.

“It shouldn’t be a choice that your company doesn’t exploit people – it should be an obligation. That’s not voluntary.”

Ash believes that recognising the signs of slavery are crucial to protect workers and free them. “Slave workers will often arrive and leave in big groups because their trafficker will control their movements.” She added that they may be very timid and not give eye contact and they may have bruises or injuries. They won’t socialise in and outside of work and they will wear the same clothes as their wages will go to their trafficker.

If you suspect someone is a modern slave and needs help you can contact the Modern Slavery Helpline online or call 08000 121 700.

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