Fast Fashion and Modern Slavery In The UK

by Megan Kioulafofski
woman shopping

What Is Fast Fashion, And What’s So Bad About It?

In today’s times of uncertainty and global economic crisis, the long time realities of what is bad about fast fashion are once again coming to surface.

Companies across the globe have been forced to adjust to the new reality caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with some industries like tourism, entertainment or arts, feeling the strain more than others. As most of the businesses adapt, it appears that social distancing is here to stay at least until November according to U.K’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. 

To show support, some companies such as Timpson, Fullers and Co-op have stood in solidarity with their workers but sadly, not all have been so scrupulous. In this turbulent atmosphere, the fast fashion market problems which  have been under the spotlight for some time now, are once again brought into discussion. And that’s not only because of fast fashion’s environmental impact but also because of the horrific conditions that workers in fast fashion companies are subjected to. 

The fast fashion textile industry produces gigantic levels of waste, which has a significantly negative effect on climate change and human health.  In some respects Westerners have been ignorant regarding how much damage fast fashion brands are causing not only to the environment, but by also perpetuating a cycle of modern-day slavery labor in UK, and all over Europe.

Where Do Fast Fashion Problems Stem From?

To continue with what is bad about fast fashion, a 2019 parliamentary report details how the average Brit buys more clothes than our European neighbours, with fast fashion brands making it possible for many to acquire vast quantities of cheap clothes. 

Retailers capitalize on people’s hunger to own the latest catwalk fashion trends and the newest styles, at a fraction of designer prices. 

These lower prices come with a high cost though: the exploitation of the garment workers and factory employees within supply chains

Whilst media reports of human trafficking and modern-day slavery within global fashion industry’s supply chains existed pre-COVID-19, the pandemic has highlighted just how prevalent this abuse is. 

What Is Bad About Fast Fashion In The UK?

As far as what is bad about fast fashion in the UK right now goes, there’s much to talk about.

One Sunday Times report found a factory in Leicester refusing to follow the city’s localized lockdown measures and subjecting workers to horrific conditions. An undercover journalist posing as a factory worker was informed his wage would be £3.50 per hour, flouting the UK’s minimum wage of £8.72 per hour for workers aged 25 and over. 

One of Britain’s favourite online fashion retailers, Boohoo, has also been implicated in modern day slavery allegations. Garments made in a factory in Leicester were allegedly under the Nasty Gal label, owned by Boohoo. In this location, workers have been  experiencing “furlough fraud” and were told to come to work regardless of whether they were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or not. 

The labour Behind the Label’s campaign manager, Meg Lewis, said that: “It is heart-breaking to see grotesque inequality when some people profit so much while there are workers at the bottom of the chain whose lives are being put at risk.”

fast fashion problems

The Growing Concern Regarding What Is Bad About Fast Fashion 

Unfortunately, such findings regarding what is bad about fast fashion in the UK and the problems resulting, are not for the first time in the spotlight. 

A UK-based apparel supply chain has faced similar allegations after a 2015 study regarding worker’s rights by the University of Leicester, found that “the majority of garment factory workers are getting minimum wages, way below the National Minimum Wage in UK, do not have employment contracts, and are subject to intense and arbitrary work practices.”

The most vulnerable of migrants usually fear being deported if they speak out against their illegal working conditions. For them, this  would often times mean returning to worst poverty, discrimination and abuse.

The 2015 report went on to detail the shocking ways through which Leicester-based factories are exploiting vulnerable people through inadequate health and safety standards, verbal abuse, bullying, threats, humiliation, and even a lack of toilet breaks. 

One particularly harrowing finding regarding what is bad about fast fashion in UK, exposed the hierarchy within supply chains, where the most vulnerable workers – usually undocumented migrants at risk of deportation – faced the most brutal exploitations

Migrants on student or visitor visas and undocumented migrants with expired legal status to remain in the UK, were often working for a pitiful £1 per hour, with no employment contract to protect them. More than that, these people are oftentimes the victims of non-salary payment, no holiday pay and irregular working hours. Workers are regularly  getting their cash-in-hand, with hours under-recorded. This leaves them at the mercy of exploitative employers who can restrict their access to public welfare benefits or take advantage of the fact that some don’t have access to public funds. 

What Has Led To The Aggravation Of Fast Fashion Problems

If you’re curious to find out more about what is bad about fast fashion and what has led to these horrifying repercussions, keep reading!

The UK’s ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy has allowed for most of the fast fashion problems to happen. Migrants with complex individual circumstances and needs, are terrified to go to authorities and ask for help regarding their visas and legal statuses. 

The UK government has made it clear that it intends to deport first and ask questions never, as seen during the Windrush scandal and the deportations to Jamaica in 2019. With so much hostility towards migrants, corrupt employers swoop in and take advantage of the fact that migrants are unable to seek help or complain about injustices.

The rampant consumerism that sells us the latest looks at impossibly cheap prices, is one of capitalism’s worst victories. An estimated £30 billion worth of clothes that have never been worn are hanging in wardrobes across the UK. 

The combination of fast fashion’s devastating effect on the climate and its complicity in human rights abuses should propel us all as consumers to make more conscious choices. 

By refusing to shop from labels and companies who manipulate those who are already marginalized, we can take away the power from those who take profit off other people’s suffering

Clearly, in this time and age, there is a desperate need for more environmental initiatives to happen and for the fast-fashion industry to restructure what it’s bad about it’s practices: clothing brands must take accountability for their supply chains, including increased transparency, as an urgent necessity. 

Alexandra Jarvis is a writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organization of UK immigration lawyers which provides legal support for those looking to migrate to the UK or hire overseas workers

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