Workers in Leicester sweatshops are being paid as little as £3.50 an hour

A report by The Financial Times documented the exploitation happening in the UK last week

Less than a month ago, Fashion Revolution Week drew attention to the need for more transparency in the fashion industry, and the improvement of working conditions for garment workers around the globe. But while many are already aware of what's happening in places like Bangladesh, Taiwan, and Central America, what may come as a surprise is that these issues are also happening a lot closer to home, right in front of us in the UK. 

Last week, an article published by the Financial Times uncovered the sad reality of a number of so-called ‘dark factories’ based in Leicester. While the minimum wage in the UK is £7.83 an hour, it was revealed that some garment factories are illegally paying their workers an average of £4.25 an hour – with others receiving even less at £3.50 an hour. “They don’t have any skills, so manufacturers are actually taking them and training them and giving them something,” says Saeed Khilji, the chairman of the Textile Manufacturer Association of Leicestershire.

It is also common that workers operate in totally unsafe places at risk of fires and other dangerous incidents. Only last year, there were 136 workplace injuries involving severe physical damage the report says. This happens because some of the sweatshops are situated in 100-year old buildings – one building housed almost 100 factories with 10 to 20 people working in each of them – that have little or no security measures.

While retailers like New Look, River Island and Missguided (which have all been found to have clothes coming from the dark factories) have called for better law enforcement when it comes to the exploitation of workers, the low prices of their garments make it impossible for them to be manufactured ethically. “They’re asking cheap, cheap cheap,” Khilji says. “Where last year they paid £8, now they’re asking £7 for same garment. So I don’t think they have any right to shout about ethics.” 

In a move to combat factories like those seen in Leicester, a number of brands have created Fast Forward – an auditing system for suppliers to build ethical labour standards in factories and help prevent exploitation – and have promised not to work with those who didn’t follow the practices. A New Look spokesperson said working “ethically and sustainably” was fundamental to its business, and that it used suppliers’ feedback to “support them whilst ensuring alignment with our ethical requirements”. While New Look and River Island were among those signed up to Fast Forward, there are others like Boohoo that choose not to comply, making things harder to regulate. 

Read the full report here