Everybody knows

Olivia Windham Stewart

On 5 July, the Sunday Times published allegations of gross labour abuses at a garment factory in Leicester producing clothes for Boohoo. The factory was said to be underpaying wages, and failing to provide appropriate protective equipment or ensure social distancing. Boohoo said they were ‘shocked and appalled’ by the allegations: they hadn’t known.

This is not the first time Boohoo’s production, and manufacturing in Leicester more broadly, have come into the spotlight. In 2019, Boohoo was one of the many brands that provided oral evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into the social and environmental impact of fast fashion. One of the inquiry’s three main areas of focus was sustainable manufacturing in the UK; in particular, whether the government was doing enough to protect workers’ rights and ensure safe working conditions.

Marks and Spencer, Primark, the Arcadia Group, ASOS, Stella McCartney, Burberry and Paul Smith all sent senior staff to the inquiry. And most leading UK brands submitted written evidence detailing their commitment to environmental and social goals. Boohoo ticked all the boxes: they submitted 3000 words of written evidence; one of the founders, Carol Kane, attended in person; the other, Mahmud Kamani, wrote to Mary Creagh, the committee chair, inviting her to discuss, over lunch, the Boohoo group’s ‘British success story’ and ‘sustainability journey’.

The committee received just one, anonymous submission from a supplier. It said that they supplied Boohoo, Missguided, ASOS and others, and that all these brands were constantly asking suppliers to reduce their prices. Even when CEOs and managers at top brands knew the cost of clothing, the witness said, they squeezed prices and watched wages get cut. The brief testimony finishes by predicting that when the exploitation comes to light, the CEOs and managers – who know the cost of clothing – will wash their hands of it, shift the blame to suppliers and say they did not know. ‘They do know,’ the supplier concludes.

How could they not? The appalling state of working conditions in the Leicester garment industry has been known for at least a decade. Channel 4’s Dispatches broadcast an investigation in 2010 that revealed all the trademarks of endemic exploitation: pay at half the minimum wage; dangerous and unsanitary conditions; harassment and abuse. In 2015, the Ethical Trading Initiative commissioned research that found significant under or non-payment of wages; excessive working hours; a captive, vulnerable and exploited workforce; absence of contracts; egregious health and safety violations.

Dispatches aired a follow-up documentary in 2017, with many of the same findings. There was nuanced, forensic analysis in the Financial Times in 2018. The Joint Committee on Human Rights conducted an investigation in 2017 and ensured it received attention during the Environmental Audit Committee hearings in 2019. The EAC published some straightforward recommendations. The government did nothing.

Meanwhile, as poor working conditions have persisted or deteriorated, Boohoo has thrived. As the Sunday Times report broke, the company was valued at £5 billion, and was on course to dole out bonuses amounting to £150 million. It may be uniquely ‘successful’ in some ways, and uniquely aggressive in others, but Boohoo is far from a ‘bad apple’ in an otherwise functional industry.

All brands and retailers ask manufacturers to produce clothes at impossibly low prices, regardless of whether they meet the costs of production, including labour. A manufacturer who wishes to pay decent (or even legal) wages, and to ensure health and safety, may say: ‘Given what you offer, what you ask is not possible’ – but another manufacturer will assent.

When labour abuses come to light, the supplier is guilty, the brand is shocked. The latter cannot be held legally accountable for the transgressions of the former, even if it created the conditions for those transgressions. This is not to exonerate suppliers and manufacturers, but to describe the madness of a situation in which it is not illegal for retailers to demand a price below the cost of production even if that price creates the circumstances in which the law will be broken and labour rights abused.

Companies around the world use the privilege of low pricing and plausible deniability to structure their supply chains and extract the maximum value from labour at a legally convenient remove. None of this is even remotely ‘under the radar’. Labour abuses in the cocoa industry have been documented and raised in the US Congress for almost two decades. Forced labour on coffee plantations in Brazil is a known fact. Asian fishermen working in supply chains connected to leading supermarkets are trapped at sea for months on end and subjected to harrowing abuse. More than 24 million people work in conditions of forced labour. Meanwhile, Tesco is in the papers for demanding aggressive – yet entirely legal – price reductions from its suppliers.

For things to change, it will take more than calling out and castigating Boohoo. Gross systemic failures need to be overhauled, and all brands and retailers held accountable. According to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, endorsed in 2011, companies are expected to undertake due diligence for the impact not only of their own activities but also of their business relationships. The UN guiding principles, however, are only guiding principles: quasi-legal instruments with no binding force. With the possible exception of the Proceeds of Crime Act, which has not yet been used for this purpose, there are currently no legal mechanisms to establish a lead firm’s civil or criminal liability for human rights abuses in its supply chain.

That may at last be changing. In 2017, the Joint Committee on Human Rights proposed a ‘failure to prevent’ mechanism modelled on Section 7 of the Bribery Act 2010. A campaign has been launched to demand that UK firms be compelled to carry out mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence, based on the UNGP framework. Such legislation has enormous potential to shift the burden of proof: to avoid liability, companies would have to demonstrate that harm occurred despite their best efforts to prevent it. ‘Best efforts’ should include setting a decent price.


  • 25 July 2020 at 4:27am
    neddy says:
    Blame retailers, manufacturers, suppliers, law makers, inspectors - anyone but the end consumer who drives the egregious flouting of decency by demanding and buying cheap, cheap cheap. The above post does not mention consumers, that amorphous mass of open mouthed, grasping persons of all political and moral "persuasions" who buy the products and place massive competitive pressures on manufacturers and, in turn, on suppliers. No mention either that the prices paid, and the underlying very low wages, seriously skew income distribution and are very much a part of, and representative of, the massive income inequalities that prevail in the world today. So where are the bleeding hearts? Where are their social consciences? Follow them, and nirvana will be yours. Well at least they will pull down some statues.

    • 25 July 2020 at 6:18pm
      Mark Weinstein says: @ neddy
      Yes, what you say has a large element of truth to it, but I’m not so sure that the major blame is to be found in the consumer. What is widely though of as ‘cheap’ clothing (with most of the real costs externalised) has been around for a very long time, since the garment industry became globalised sometime in the late 1980s. Clothing has been cheap for so long that many of the young consumers who buy in high volumes really don’t know what might constitute a real or fair price. If people have always been, for example, able to buy T-shorts for just a few pounds, then they will see this as normal rather than extraordinary. The real villains are the companies who produce in this way and encourage over-consumption with little if any regard for the conditions under which their clothing is produced or the associated social and environmental costs.

    • 27 July 2020 at 2:03am
      neddy says: @ Mark Weinstein
      Mark, if there is a large element of truth in the assertions of my post, then why have you reverted to blaming the manufacturers as the "real villains"? I live in Melbourne, Australia, which used to be the epicentre of garment production in this country. I visited garment factories in the eighties (I had friends who were producers) and they were tough and very unpleasant places to work even then. Textiles, Clothing and Footwear were heavily protected (by tariffs and import quotas) industries in Australia until, yes, the eighties. What changed? The shift to economic rationalism in the policy making elite. Suddenly it was all about the costs of tariffs and quotas to consumers; suddenly the benefits of these measures in underpinning decent wages and civilised working conditions and benefits were brushed aside as irrelevant. Our policy making elite, Labor Party supporters included, became callous and indifferent to both industry policy, and to the persons employed within. Who are the real villains? Did ordinary working persons pay taxes to support the education of elites who destroyed their lives? Were ordinary taxpayers even aware of the contempt in which they and their contributions to national output were held? It may be that no evil was overtly intended; but it is unarguable that the results of micro economic policies adopting since the eighties are foul and degrading to our society. And yes, I do hold consumers accountable. Everybody knows where their sharp clothes and trendy footwear comes from; everybody has seen videos of the working conditions within the factories; everybody knows that the wages and benefits in these industries are sub-human. Everybody knows that producers will respond to pressure from their customers. Boycotts, for example, have been successfully employed against retailers; the Black Lives Matter movement, predominantly made up of young persons, is a clear example of our youth being socially aware and acting responsibly; Climate Change activism is another example of youth's "wokeness". Everybody knows! Everybody Knows! That's how it goes; Everybody Knows! Thanks to Leonard Cohen who, I admit, remains my favorite songwriter.

    • 29 July 2020 at 4:38pm
      Mark Weinstein says: @ neddy
      Apart from Leonard Cohen (who I also like), I wonder what data you’re basing you’re ‘everyone knows’ argument? Your reference to visiting factories in the 1980s suggests that (like me) you’re in middle age, and far from the experience & consciousness of the young people of whom you are critical.

      What do we know of young people involved in social movements like BLM & environmentalism? I would hazard to suggest that recent climate change protests in the UK & elsewhere have been led by the usual demographic as have always been most active in environmental politics since the late 1960s, i.e., young, based in urban areas, more highly educated and from middle class backgrounds. I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that environmental activism in the last 5 years has been any different in composition from past protests movements. The BLM movement might be slightly different, but there’s limited evidence at the moment to say this for sure. Yes, it’s younger than the average population and obviously more diverse than the traditionally very white environmental movement, but we don’t know much more about it at present as little in the way of research has yet to have been published.
      I absolutely defend my position that many young people in their teens and twenties - outside of the typical demographic with high levels of awareness and activism - will have limited knowledge of how and where the clothes they buy is manufactured and produced. I certainly don’t think that it is as clear and detailed as you assert. Certainly not across the board in the terms of demographics. If you look at the work of organisations campaigning to change things in the garment industry - Labour Behind the Label, Clean Clothes Campaign for example - you’ll see that the focus is equally on educating the public about how and where clothing is produced and on combatting the awful employment practices of the industry.

    • 31 July 2020 at 1:43am
      neddy says: @ Mark Weinstein
      Fair enough Mark. I can't point to official evidence to back up my assertions regarding young persons and their general "wokeness". But I do know that Australian industry and economic policy took a "rationalist" turn, for the worse in my estimation, in the eighties. It was at this time that our university trained economists decided that tariffs and quotas were, in essence, against the national interest. Needless to say, the social positions and incomes, and employment opportunities of these persons, were not adversely affected by their policy prescriptions. If they had been, then you can bet the recommended policies would have been completely different. Now economists have always argued, to their credit - one of the very few economic "axioms" that are to their credit - that those who lose out from social policy changes should be compensated from the gains of the winners. Governments in Australia devised income support, re-training, emotional support and so-called industry policies to re-integrate adversely affected persons into mainstream society. But there is simply no way that unemployment benefits and a few weeks counselling on how to write a CV, and apply for jobs, will help an employee, especially an older, immigrant employee, released from a dead industry - Textiles, Clothing and Footwear being the industry group under discussion here - to transition into an equivalent new job. It didn't happen then and it doesn't happen now. So bring in the immigrants, use them up while it suits, then boot them into the slums, while the rest of us buy our BMWs more cheaply (a cliche, I know), and the young, who love playing dress-ups to prove their human credentials, and to attract attention to themselves (their primary motive, I suggest), buy do-rags, T-shirts, cargo pants, and Nikes on the dirt cheap. These young persons most definitely know, even though I can't prove it, by whom and how, and under what conditions, their uniforms are produced. As an irrelevant aside, I am way past middle age. I assume you were being deliberately, and graciously, generous.

  • 25 July 2020 at 4:48pm
    Francis Bennett says:
    This is absolutely right. Olivia Windham Stewart's excellent, timely and important article, and Neddy's emailed comment describe a form of economic slavery, affecting millions of lives now, that must be stopped. Isn't this where all our energies should be focussed rather than worrying about statues of those whose lives we cannot affect?

  • 25 July 2020 at 5:05pm
    Liesl Graz says:
    very true ! And the first thing to do about it, is explain that to teen-agers and thir so-called influencers.

  • 25 July 2020 at 5:33pm
    Martin Fletcher says:
    Clothes are very cheap these days, compared to previous decades. neddy is right, it's our hunger for cheap goods which drives the prices down. Basic factory working conditions in this country are controllable however, and I suspect inspection is lax.

  • 25 July 2020 at 7:07pm
    Caroline Juler says:
    Great article, thank you so much for going into such depth. By coincidence I’ve just published the first in a series of films investigating ways of avoiding fast fashion in Wales. It’s on YouTube at

  • 25 July 2020 at 10:50pm
    patricia garcia says:
    It is true, the true villains are the manufacturing companies, but nobody is going to do anything about them. The customers though, have real power to stop them, if they do not buy the merchandise, their business cannot function. It's the same with everything: consumers have the last word, on pollution, on bad farming practices and so on, and particularly about slave work. If products are too inexpensive you leave well alone. If the stores are left with shelves full of cheap products they will stop stocking them. I know this is too much to expect, but they will indeed continue to pull down statues, that is cheap as well.

  • 26 July 2020 at 1:55pm
    Graucho says:
    Everybody knows, but nobody does. Heard someone going on about how this was due to no single agency having responsibility etc. etc. One undercover employee providing evidence on failure to pay minimum wage. One successful high profile prosecution. Job done. As the Chinese say kill chicken, scare monkey.

  • 27 July 2020 at 10:28am
    John Tarpey says:
    One of the problems for the consumer in this is that it is not easy to correlate the price you pay with the price paid to the producer or the wages paid to the workers. How can you tell that a T-Shirt selling at £20 in some fashionable shop was not produced in the same sweat shop as the shirt selling for £3 in the budget shop down the road? I am happy (ish) to pay proper prices to support the workers but not to pay for advertising, fancy shops and high profits to retailers who are still exploiting those workers..

  • 29 July 2020 at 6:50pm
    Graucho says:
    The guilty parties in all of this are the authorities who are simply not enforcing laws already on the statute book. If companies are not prosecuted for illegal labour practices then basic economics will ensure that the bad will drive out the good in any competitive free market set up.

  • 4 August 2020 at 8:59pm
    Denis Mollison says:
    @neddy - If we're distributing blame, fine, blame consumers. But it is not realistic to try to solve the problem through the consumer end. How is the average consumer to execute due diligence in weighing up just what iniquities have gone into producing a particular item of clothing, or to research the conditions and wages of the labourers who produced it?
    It has to be more straighforward and achievable to put the burden on manufacturers: to put a duty on them only to buy goods for which the workers have reasonable working conditions (minimum wage appropriate to their country, safe working conditions). Just stating it like that I can see even that is utopian, but it is possible, unlike putting the duty to act on consumers.

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