Case Study Four

Overcoming workers rights infringements

Dr Nik Hammer has been conducting research since 2014 in collaboration with the Ethical Trading Initiative a UK-based alliance of lead firms, trade unions and NGOs that promotes respect for workers’ rights around the globe.

This research collaboration emerged following a renewed growth in the manufacturing industry as retailers and brands have commenced or increased sourcing from regional suppliers. Whilst this has presented a great opportunity for regional economic growth there has been anecdotal evidence about considerable risks in the form of violations of work and employment regulations. ETI identified the need for substantive research to better understand supply chain relationships and working conditions within the UK garment sector, with a focus on Leicester, before deciding on what action to take. The University of Leicester’s Centre for Sustainable Work and Employment Futures was commissioned to lead a research study, due to its focus on industrial relations and labour rights and strong connections with local stakeholders. Dr Nik Hammer and his research team brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the project, and worked closely with a wide spectrum of stakeholders through the research process.

The research found that the majority of workers within the Leicester garment sector are paid well below the national minimum wage at £3 per hour. This finding was obtained through both a small-scale survey of 30 garment sector workers and semi-structured interviews with workers, advice/welfare/community organisations, trade unions, and NGOs. While it is difficult to put an exact figure on the workers this affects, an average wage of around £3 per hour was confirmed as industry norm. This has further been backed up through ongoing conversations and engagement with local stakeholders.

The research found that there is a widespread practice to consider weekly income as a composite form of remuneration. Workers receive a low wage from their workplace and are told to ‘make up’ the remainder to reach national minimum wage rates through public welfare benefits. Almost half of the survey sample reported that they received some form of benefit: working tax credits, child tax credits, and housing benefits.

The main issues around non-payment of the national minimum wage, and absence of employment contracts, affected legal workers but coming from migrant communities of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin. These are mainly female workers who have been in the UK for more than 10 years, who either hold British citizenship or have a leave to remain and right to work status. The small-scale worker survey also found that 70% spoke English only with difficulties, increasing exploitation vulnerability.

A conservative estimate puts the underpaid wage sum in apparel manufacturing within the East Midlands at £1 million per week! The impact of this has far reaching consequences that have an adverse impact on the whole region.

Outcomes and impact of the research include:

  1. The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) with the backing of its member companies in the apparel and garments sector as well as trade unions, the local authority and community groups have set up a programme to support the sustainable development of Leicester’s garment and textile industry.
  2. Leicester is an important manufacturing centre for many fashion brands and retailers and is part of a re-emergence in UK textiles manufacturing. We know there are good business practices within some parts of the sector, but this research also found evidence of serious and endemic labour rights issues that are clearly unacceptable and have no place in the UK or globally.
  3. With ETI’s experience of working on labour rights issues within global supply chains, ETI is well placed to bring together relevant stakeholders to effect any necessary change.

Research findings have been disseminated widely, through The Conversation (Hammer, 2015) and social media (YouTube, Twitter), and received wide coverage nationally and internationally (The Guardian, various BBC programmes, front page news in regional and industry press).

For further information please contact Dr Nik Hammer

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