Channel 4 programme Dispatches has revealed that clothing for high street chains such as New Look and Arcadia-owned BHS is being produced in appalling conditions by workers in Leicester. The workers were paid only £2.50 an hour and lacked basic health and safety protections. The working conditions looked similar to those found in developing countries such as Bangladesh and many people would be shocked to learn such exploitation is also going on here in Britain.
In fact we should not be surprised. With high street companies demanding clothes are produced not only cheaper but faster it is unsurprising that some production will be taking place here in the UK - under criminally poor conditions to keep costs low.
The programme focussed on one manufacturing unit in Leicester and linked a number of the garments directly to British high street stores. But it also showed the unit was one of many in the city, and it seems likely that further investigation would expose even more exploitation, linked to even more big brands. Leicester has a long traditional of homework, linked to its clothing industry, and it is highly likely that many of these small units will also be putting work out to homeworkers, on even lower rates of pay.
The companies’ standard response is that they had no idea their clothes were being produced under such conditions, and that the supplier subcontracted the work without their knowledge or permission. This may be true, but if major high street brands can’t keep track of their supply chains just down the road in Leicester, how can we believe they are serious about tackling exploitation further a field, in China, Bulgaria or Bangladesh? The revelations pose the question whether the big brands are making any meaningful progress on ethics and accountability, despite their public commitments.