Modern Slavery Allegations against Boohoo – Boohoo indeed!
Sharon Casey Gray
4th August 2020
Most of us have at some point felt overcome with shopper’s buzz after managing to snatch up a trendy garment on a fast fashion website at a shockingly cheap price. It is far less common, however, that we stop before making our purchase, to consider how that hotly dropped item is being produced and sold for only a fraction of the expected price, or the price of similar garments being sold elsewhere. That’s the thing – these too-good-to-be-true prices often are too good to be true! A shirt cannot be produced and sold for £3 or at a 70% reduction without someone in the production or distribution chain paying the price. Thankfully, in the wake of the recent modern slavery allegation against Boohoo, people are now reflecting on the ethics of fast fashion and are finally asking the crucial question – who is paying the price?
The infamous investigation recently led by The Sunday Times unveiled that a textile manufacturer in Leicester supplying the online retail giant Boohoo has been paying its workers as little as £3.50 an hour, far below the UK national minimum wage of £8.72. Equally appalling is the fact that the story only came to light after the UK government linked a spike in Covid-19 infections to poor working conditions in the textile factory in Leicester. This is not the first time such accusations have been made against the fast fashion chain, as both Channel 4 and the Financial Times have published similar findings in recent years, which have largely gone unaddressed.
Perhaps, it is in light of a recent shift in societal outlook, such as that demonstrated by the BLM movement, which has ignited this change. Our society is no longer tolerant of human exploitation and inequality. This has been reflected by the resulting plummeting of shares in Boohoo and the company’s stock being dropped by popular retailers ASOS, Zolando and Next. Some positives may be derived from this unfortunate circumstance though, as it has prompted public reflection and advocacy to update modern slavery laws, promote industry transparency and increase international solidarity in the fashion industry, to prevent such abhorrent practices occurring again.
While it is wholesome to see such an appalled reaction by the public to the allegations, the reason this practice is receiving so much attention domestically is because it is occurring on our own doorstep. Why are we not so appalled by the exploitation that continues to occur in the fashion industry, often on much greater scales, in factories abroad?
“The Sunday Times unveiled that a textile manufacturer in Leicester supplying the online retail giant Boohoo has been paying its workers as little as £3.50 an hour, far below the UK national minimum wage of £8.72.”
It is well known that exploitation is common practice in developing countries, where labour is often outsourced without auditing or transparency in order to accelerate and reduce the cost of manufacturing; a game of liability “pass-the-parcel”, so to speak. To mention more extreme examples, evidence from the US department of labour has shown that forced and child labour continues to occur in countries such as China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, Brazil and Indonesia. Dangerous working conditions, resulting in fires and accidents which put workers’ health and lives at risk, are also dangerously common.
Take, for example, the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, where garment workers were forced to work in a clearly structurally unsound building which collapsed, killing 1,134 people. Primark labels were found in the rubble. Some good came from the short-lived media attention by the western public, as elevated brand accountability prompted initiatives to improve safety standards in many Bangladeshi garment factories.
However, it is now seven years on, and despite continued lobbying by workers rights groups and unions, not much sustainable change has been made and the conditions continue to be dire. Workers there continue to earn the lowest wages of garment workers in the world. If a lesson is to be learned from these tragic circumstances, it is that in order to see change, we must continue to question where our clothes came from, who made them and how – not only when injustice occurs on our own doorstep, but always.
We must also bear in mind that the fast fashion industry hurts people and the planet. Textile producers will continue to keep up with the demand for fast fashion, fuelling the need to cut corners in order to get the designs from boardroom to website as fast and as cheaply as possible. This is prompted by the rinse -and -repeat nature of short-lived consumer fashion trends. Today’s turnover of textiles means that clothes go from rail to landfill as quickly as being produced. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation reported that 73% of all materials used in fast fashion end up in landfills or are burned and cause more CO2 emissions than global travel and shipping combined.
We all may play a part in partially remedying this problem, by switching to more sustainable fashion choices such as buying better quality, more timeless pieces from brands that promote transparent and ethical practices in their production process. Another trending solution is to go vintage and breathe new life into old pieces of clothing. If we are to boast as a society that we promote equality for all people, then we must not forget to also fight for the rights of the workers behind our clothing labels, whoever or wherever they may be.
Featured photo by Rijans