The struggle for a living wage in Sweatshop Britain
Workers in Leicester are being paid as little as £3.50 an hour to manufacture garments for huge multi million-pound fast fashion brands like Boohoo. This production takes place in unsafe environments where workers are coerced into accepting completely intolerable conditions.
If you ask anyone, they will tell you that they think that this putrid exploitation can’t be allowed to continue. Boohoo themselves have stated that the conditions in Leicester sweatshops are “totally unacceptable.” The Tory government called it “despicable” and even many sweatshop operators publicly stated that the way they manufacture garments is unethical, stating that the reality of market rates forced their hands.
Despite this overwhelming consensus, the fact remains that sweatshops continue to exist in Leicester – and elsewhere too. Sections of the ruling class hypocritically may say that this practice is unethical but none of them seem to think that they are responsible or even able to stop it.
History of the garment industry
The production of clothing as a commodity is not an age old phenomenon. Only since the invention of the sewing machine and its proliferation in the 1840s has there been a substantial market for clothing that is premade from standard patterns and ready to wear by anyone on the street. Before this, the wealthy wore bespoke tailored clothes as standard and common people relied on small local production of garments.
New modes of production enabled clothing to be manufactured at a far greater scale than ever before. Cities like Leicester became national hubs for the production of garments.
Initially this production was largely concentrated in the global west, but a shift in the 1960s to a more globalised capitalist system resulted in garment manufacturing moving to where it could be done cheapest – overwhelmingly production moved to the developing world where capitalists could get away with far lower wages and poorer working conditions.
Cities like Leicester gradually lost contracts to cheaper overseas suppliers, and one after another large garment producers closed shop. But even as late as the 1980s, conditions were far better than today.
The Financial Times interviewed a man called Hassan Doshi who moved to Leicester in the 1980s to work in the textile industry. He described conditions at that time far better than what we see now: “He remembers 29 days of paid holiday, 12.30 finishes on Fridays, and factory owners poaching him with the promise of higher pay.”
This situation quickly changed as the great majority of production moved overseas. The machinery for garment production was still in place, but it wasn’t as profitable to use it for the same kind of bulk manufacturing that it was used for before.
Enter Fast Fashion
This is where fast fashion comes in. Companies like Boohoo make their profits by very quickly responding to current trends. If a celebrity wears a nice top, then fast fashion companies set themselves to bringing similar cheap garments to market before their competitors can.
For this kind of business model, manufacturing locally starts to make sense to the capitalists: they can get their cheap items on the shelves while Chinese versions are sat on a boat in the Panama Canal.
Speed comes at a cost though: local factories have to compete with sweatshops around the world for price. Retailers wash their hands of the seedy practicalities – they simply demand the lowest prices and the quickest times and change providers if they can find better elsewhere. One Leicester based clothing manufacturer described this process as like “a cattle market” where suppliers are sat in the same room with their samples and outbid each other for pricing.
This penny pinching results into a race to the bottom – where each sweatshop owner knows that they have to cut their provision to the bone – because if another capitalist has slightly less scruples than them then they’ll lose all their contracts. These contracts are very short term and come and go as the fashion of the hour changes.
Since orders are typically small and short term, this results in these dark factories being small operations – with around 10 workers at each. This size allows sweatshops to close and reopen at the drop of a hat. They will often subcontract other sweatshops for orders that are bigger than they can satisfy alone. This is often undocumented making auditing the origin of a garment very difficult.
The dark factories further obscure their business practices by paying a so-called minimum wage but reducing the hours worked on paper. So a 40 hour week at £3.50 an hour looks like a part time gig at minimum wage to the tax office.
While these tricks do make tracking down sweatshops harder, it is no excuse for the government and retailers. The fact is that the prices they pay are so low that it is impossible to be naive enough to assume they are manufactured ethically.
Companies like Boohoo might not actually design and build these sweatshops, but the prices they pay guarantee that they will be built – there is no other way to provide what they request!
The buck passing between the retailers, the manufacturers and the regulators is futile and serves only to maintain the current conditions. None of them thinks they are to blame. But they are all happily profiting off the practice. To argue that each of them doesn’t understand how their actions have directly lead to this situation is to argue that they are far too stupid to be in any kind of position of leadership.
It is in the interest of the ruling class to keep these sweatshops running – so if we leave it up to them then they’ll keep churning forever.
How can we fight for better pay and conditions?
It is obvious that we cannot just ask nicely for proper pay and conditions for everyone in Leicester. Any action has to force the hands of the bosses. HMRC has only launched 36 investigations into pay at small Leicester garment manufacturers since October 2017. This is in a city with over 1000 factories in its garment district. They have also only issued 10 penalties for underpayment.
Working class people are strongest when we are united. If our class stands together and refuses to allow this to continue then the bosses will have no choice but to comply.
But this is easy to say and more difficult to do. Any actions must come from below, with the concerns of sweatshops workers to the fore. This requires a patient and persistent approach. As ever, it is crucial that the workers themselves have the agency and control over the struggle for their emancipation. As Marxists, we need to actively campaign alongside these workers and help lead where necessary.
It is often stated that if we do all this then the sweatshops will just go somewhere else and everyone in Leicester will lose their jobs. In a vacuum this is true. As long as the capitalist class is in charge they’ll keep trying to squeeze every last penny of profit, and if that means the sweatshops need to go to Manchester or Morocco then they’ll pack up the sewing machines and head off.
Cynics conclude from this that fighting back locally is pointless. But the exact opposite is true. We have a duty to build a local fightback immediately – only by building locally can we provide an example of a working local campaign as a model for every city.
Ultimately there is nothing more bankrupt than inaction. You can be as cynical as you want about the odds of a campaign’s success, but if nothing is done then there is a 100% certainty that nothing will change.
To truly rid the world of sweatshops and exploitation we need to destroy the system that creates them. But that doesn’t mean we should simply sit back and wait for socialism to come and fix this rotten situation – the accumulation of our efforts can make serious gains and help build up the confidence of working class people. Each success will lay a cornerstone in the minds of our class, providing a foundation for workers to take real power and bring about the socialist transformation of society.
For the campaign against sweatshops to succeed it will need to take on a mass character – one organisation alone will not achieve this! The unions and the working class as a whole are the only forces that can smash exploitation. This doesn’t mean we should wait for union leaders, but it does mean that every effort must be made to ensure that the campaign is broad, uniting the labour movement against capitalist exploitation and linking up workers in different countries
Leicester Socialist Alternative members are actively involved in a local campaign to organise sweatshop workers. To get involved, contact firstname.lastname@example.org