Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Monday, 8 November 2010

Stitch! stitch! stitch! In poverty, hunger and dirt...*

Sometimes it's not much fun being right. Back in January 2009, I wrote this: With exchange rates signalling the end of cheap imported fashion and unemployment once more stalking the streets of our cities, there is a serious risk that sweatshops will multiply in Britain to fill the gap.

Today brings a press release (via the Independent) from Channel 4 ahead of tonight's Dispatches: Clothing on sale in the high street is being made in Britain in dirty, dangerous and “appalling” conditions.
An undercover reporter has found clothing made for New Look, Primark, Peacocks, Jane Norman and bhs being made by workers -  many of them working illegally - paid half the minimum wage in “dangerous, pressurised sweatshop conditions”.
We shouldn't be surprised, though; when a large cappuccino will set you back more than the cost of a T-shirt, there has to be something badly skewed in the economics of supply and demand. Disposable fashion has become the norm, with a rapid turnover matched by rock-bottom prices.
There's a powerful lobby that argues sweatshops are a necessary stage on the ladder of economic development and a poorly paid job is better than no job at all, but no worker should have to put up with this:
“The basement unit was cramped, over-heated and inadequately ventilated, with unsanitary toilets, dirty staircases and poorly lit corridors. With the greatest risk being fire, his only fire exit was completely blocked.” There were no clean facilities for providing drinking water.

The retailers involved have since launched their own investigations. Perhaps the first thing they should look at is the wholesale price charged by their suppliers - if the garments are cheap enough to be sold on at a profit for less than the price of a coffee, there should surely have been some questions asked.

We're in Dickensian territory here - according to a Sikh elder in Leicester, “It’s like slave labour, it’s like going back a hundred years in the way they treated. The people are so helpless they just got to do whatever they can... the bosses can shout at them or they can insult them, and these people can’t do anything about it.”

There's something monstrous about poorly paid men and women hunched over sewing machines for many hours at a time producing disposable fashion for the momentary amusement of an over-indulged generation conditioned to see cheap clothing as an entitlement.

It's bad enough when these workers are on the other side of the world out of reach of UK legislation - when they could be living in the next street to their oblivious customers it becomes downright immoral.

*The Song of the Shirt by Thomas Hood (1843) Plus ca change...


  1. "It's bad enough when these workers are on the other side of the world from the customers - when they could be living in the next street it becomes downright immoral."

    To what extent has this been driven by unrestricted immigration?

    You say that it's bad enough 'when they are living on the other side of the world'. But how many have just arrived here from the other side of the world exactly for that purpose..?

  2. JuliaM, since Dispatches claim that many of the workers are here on student visas, presumably courtesy of the kind of colleges subject to a recent crackdown, you're probably right.

    It will be interesting to see whether the programme actually mentions that particular elephant in the sweatshop...

  3. May I disagree? I knew the hosiery industry very well back in the 1940's in Leicester. Also I handled the products on the railway in the 1950's. This means I knew people who had worked there over a hundred years ago and some indeed born in the 1870's. Also, for family reasons I have been running around the Census returns for the 19th Century there. It was not as bad as then as it is now, if anything it is now very much worse. Then they were free workers and mobile. Now very many of them are imported serfs or slaves.

  4. So they will find that the UK is no bargain and return to the sweatshops they came from.