Dark Satanic Mills Are Not Just a Historical Artifact: MP Castigates Leicester Fast Fashion Factories

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

I have posted frequently on fast fashion’s horrific waste footprint.

But the fashion industry has another dirty little secret: persistent horrific labor conditions.

These are not just confined d to factories in developing countries.

Yesterday’s s Guardian features a story discussing the “national shame” of working conditions in Leicester’s fast fashion factories:

Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, raised a question on Tuesday about the continuing state of working conditions in factories supplying the UK’s booming fast fashion industry, and sought a meeting with business secretary Kelly Tolhurst for clarity over enforcement of the national minimum wage.

One would have thought that we were talking about 19th-century  working conditions, rather than operations in modern Britain. Over to the Guardian again:

“This is Leicester’s dirty secret,” he said. “These illegal businesses are not only keeping their workers in miserable conditions, they’re also undermining the marketplace for legitimate businesses to make a living in a very difficult market. I’ve seen the buildings where these workers are and it is shocking: the buildings are condemned – if there was a fire there then hundreds would die, and this is Britain in 2020. It’s a national shame.”

Persistent investigations into the UK’s domestic garment industry has raised the spectre of serious labour abuses thriving in factories across the north west of England with relative impunity.

Last February, an Environmental Audit Committee heard evidence of environmental and labour abuses flourishing in the UK’s fashion industry. MPs found that the Modern Slavery Act was not sufficient to stop wage exploitation at UK clothing factories and issued a series of recommendations, including forcing brands to increase transparency in their supply chains. However the government refused to implement any of the committee’s recommendations, which also included moves to improve environmental sustainability and limit waste.

n November 2019, a scoping survey on the Greater Manchester textile and garment industry that included 182 companies operating across the region, also found evidence that workers were being paid as little as £3-4 an hour.

The main problem here of course is the pressure to produce cheap, disposable fashion. I have discussed the environmental consequences of that pressure (see Fast Fashion Juggernaut Rolls Along  and The High Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion).

But the same pressure also contributes to the industry’s labour practices. Over to the Guardian again:

The survey also highlighted concerns from small manufacturers that they were under increasing pressure from large retailers whose purchasing practices were driving down prices to levels at which it was impossible for them to pay their workers properly. [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]

What Is to Be Done?

Well for starters, the UK must enforce its minimum wage laws. Bridgen’s action is shining the spotlight on the fast fashion industry.

Yet as we’re well aware, government appetite for enforcement of laws that protect workers is not as strong as it should be.

And the reaction of the government minister quoted by the Guardian suggests this is not a priority for the Tory government:

In the Commons yesterday, business minister Kelly Tolhurst agreed a meeting to discuss conditions in Leicester but said, “This is a particular sector that has been under focus; there has been much work that has been carried out by HMRC and cross-border agencies – HMRC enforce the national living wage.”

So, in such an environment, what can one do?

Well, something we as consumers can do is not to purchase fast fashion. The goods tend to be shoddy, they have a huge environmental footprint, and the industry’s labor practices do not bear close scrutiny.

Readers might well say, well, that’s all very well and good, but fast fashion is ubiquitous, whereas well-made, long-lasting goods are either unavailable or only available at a cost that many cannot afford to pay.

I don’t want to end on a gloomy note. The Evening Standard featured an auricle on the rise of businesses in England that are exploiting what was previously known as fashion waste – to create new, usable fashion,

As just one example:

‘I’m actually saving jeans from landfill as we speak,’ the fashions tylist Anna Foster half shouts down the phone to me from a warehouse in north London.

Foster is the founder of the upcycling label ELV Denim and is on a regular sourcing trip to buy some 200 pairs of otherwise unwanted jeans, which she will then wash, splice together and sell in her shop on Shacklewell Lane or on Net-A-Porter. ‘I am sourcing pairs I think I can make something out of. Rather than create a design and find material to go with it, everything starts at somebody else’s waste.’

Welcome to the trending world of ‘trashion’, where one man’s rubbish becomes another man’s pair of designer jeans. Fuelled by the environmental impact of the fashion industry’s issues with chemical use, carbon emissions, overproduction and waste, ELV Denim is one of a charge of young activist labels embracing upcycling as a business model on a mission to make the fashion industry less wasteful and more woke. Foster calls her company ‘zero-waste’; even her leather labels are cast-offs from a London belt manufacturer.

Now, many of these operations are relatively small-scale and their products may not be widely available. But what the Standard documents is the increase in fast fashion alternatives specifically targeted to reducing fashion waste. I’ve only included one of many examples discussed in the short article;; for those with an interest, read  the complete piece  in full.

Another cause for modest optimism: as the Standard reports, some of these operations are beginning to have a wider impact:

What’s more, these small brands with careful and slow supply chains are beginning to turn the heads of the big-gun retailers, too. This month Net-A-Porter has launched 45 more sustainable brands, including the upcycling labels The R Collective and Aaizél. ‘The want and need for sustainability within the luxury retail sphere is becoming more and more apparent from the way our customers are shopping,’ says buying director, Elizabeth von der Goltz. ‘More brands are definitely focusing on zero waste more by using off-cuts to create products and building business models around using surplus materials they have sourced.’

As far as the industry’s attitude towards waste is concerned, this change in perspective comes not a moment too soon.

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  1. John Zelnicker

    Maybe there is a change moving through the fast fashion industry, and not a moment too soon.

    The whole idea of “fast fashion” is very confusing to an old codger like me. In what world does it make sense to wear an article of clothing once or twice before getting rid of it? I still wear shirts that belonged to my father who died over 25 years ago.

    Even now I purchase clothing that will last and I wear it until it’s threadbare. It costs a bit more, and I understand not everyone can pay more, but there are options that aren’t more expensive that will last a lot longer than one or two wearings.

    IMNSHO, fast fashion is a consumerism-based con to get people to buy clothing more often than necessary. It’s in the same realm as planned obsolescence and the general crapification of everything.

  2. Peter

    I haven’t bought a “new” shirt, jeans or jacket ever since we had moved to Canada in ’81 and found the Sally Ann stores.
    We still have enough to last us to the end of our days….all excellent quality cotton material. Needs be, as second hand stores are non existent where we live now.
    Fashion never was a topic to me or my wife…if it keeps you warm and dry, that is good enough.

  3. PlutoniumKun

    For those who don’t know, Leicester has a huge south Asian population (about 30%). I would guess that most of those factories are owned by ethnic south Asians who use their contacts to get people without UK passports to work there on the cheap. Immigrants hoping for passports or work visas (or those who have them but lack the language skills to know their rights) are particularly vulnerable to this type of abuse.

    The great Italian film Gomorrah depicted a similar situation in the south of Italy, where many high fashion ‘made in Italy’ garments were actually made by illegal Chinese immigrants, organised by triad gangs.

    1. BillS

      And Roberto Saviano’s book of the same name goes into even more detail about how the whole contract production system works and its connections to Mafia figures. Italy’s anti-counterfeiting, origin labeling and immigration rules, given the Law of Unintended Consequences, actually exacerbate the problem.

    2. Joe Well

      “Know their rights”

      As low income immigrant workers in Boris’s Britain, what would those rights effectively be? Maybe they do in fact know their rights better than we do.

    3. Abi

      I went to school in Leicester, south Asian is a broad term, Leicester is full of Indians…I mean it’s like 70% Indian. Since it’s a uni town – it has uni of Leicester and DMU, it has a kind of multicultural feel to it all through the year except at Christmas and in the summer when people go home. Also the ppl who work in the clothing factories are not illegal or vulnerable. It’s more like there are no jobs in Leicester except in retail

    4. Off The Street

      Los Angeles has had numerous bouts of sweatshoppery that seem to appear after winter rains, or at random. The diverse, undocumented labor pool hides many talents.

  4. Plain Citizen

    Andrew Bridgen is a Conservative MP, surprising the author forgot to mention it, so it is good to see that he has the confidence to approach the government which is of his own party to make these important points even if that might be embarrassing for the party and perhaps limit his hopes of advancement.

  5. Eustache de Saint Pierre

    From my experience on Universal Credit it does not surprise me in the least & I imagine that there is the possibility that people are working on the side in order to simply survive, or could have been sanctioned which is something that can happen very easily being an event that leaves it’s victims penniless & can also develop into a suspension meaning that the whole application farce has to be started again including the 6-8 weeks of waiting to be paid. this in turn leads to many taking on advances which in reality only hurt them later on when they are cut from the pittance they get over a short period.

    It is also possible I believe that some would rather do the above than put up with the humiliation & stress incurred & i strongly believe that the whole Idea of that Kafkaesque construction is to force people elsewhere into anything other than it. After my 6 months of trying to live on around £ 40.00 per week which I did manage as I had many advantages not available to the majority, the lesson becomes crystal clear.

    I am now getting by using the method of undercutting others & working long hours, neither of which I want to do but are necessary in order to not have to re-live that experience of which the worst part was being under the power of that grinding mill of a system. I Am still awaiting a long overdue payment for a commission which will allow me to downsize considerably which I don’t mind doing as I have realised I don’t really need all that much, especially not clothes as I was fortunate once to have been fairly affluent so will take my good wardrobe with me.

    A race to the bottom, all going to plan IMO.

  6. Bugs Bunny

    I lived in the 11th in Paris and I kid you not, there was a Chinese sweat shop in the courtyard of our building. The ladies sat at their sewing machines from 8AM-6PM, though there was a break room downstairs that I saw once when they left the door open. There was a sign in Chinese up rue du Faubourg du Temple in Belleville with our address and the figure of €500/month. They were making clothes for the Sinéquanone chain of women’s clothing stores. All their clothes are “Made in France”, bien entendu.

  7. Joe Well

    Two years ago I got three shirts made by a highly recommended tailor and also bought two shirts from a mid range chain.

    The shirts from the tailor started to go threadbare fast. On one, the collar was so badly stitched that it was irritating my neck. The cheaper mass produced shirts held up much better.

    And even though the tailor put the shirts together, the cloth still was manufactured by someone.

    I am not sure where the exits are from this particular trap. Etsy?

  8. Eustache de Saint Pierre

    My partner before she was hit badly by depression around 5 years ago ran a ” Cash for Clothes ” outlet for a businessman friend of mine. The stuff that came in varied from truly disgusting to top end with tags designer label stuff. It was taken to a warehouse & sorted into grades. The lowest form was called Africa, slightly better was Pakistan & then except for the top grade of designer labels with tags, the rest was called Cream & was sent to Eastern Europe.

    She noticed people with high end cars who would park just around the corner before furtively bringing in dustbin bags, who were often pretty peeved at only getting 70p per kilo. One couple spent many trips over about a week emptying out their loft of good quality clothing, but the main source of tagged mid to low range stuff came from teenage girls.

    The supply started to dry up a couple of years ago so many of these places closed shop – sadly the businessman I mentioned who was a good fella developed Alzheimers so closed his earlier.

  9. epynonymous

    I live in an old mill town in northern Mass., and I’m currently selling my blood in an old mill building there (white blood cells, twice a month for 900 bucks… once I get a few things in order I’ll be collecting unemployment while I wait to get into a masters degree program somewhere.)

    There’s a history of sexual exploitation that is poorly documented there, but even ‘1984’ writes wryly of the right of Prima Noctis managers would have over their female employees in those olden times… The women who work there now are hard-as-nails… and they swear the building is haunted by the spirits of the women who were harmed working there.

  10. Synoia

    This was a complaint about the Industrial revolution:

    And did those feet in ancient time
    Walk upon England’s mountain green?
    And was the holy Lamb of God
    On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

    And did the countenance divine
    Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
    And was Jerusalem builded here
    Among those dark satanic mills?

    Bring me my bow of burning gold!
    Bring me my arrows of desire!
    Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
    Bring me my chariot of fire!

    I will not cease from mental fight,
    Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
    Till we have built Jerusalem
    In England’s green and pleasant land.

  11. TG


    But. In California, we have millions of illegal immigrants working for sub-poverty wages – and any mention of enforcing the minimum wage laws is viciously attacked as racist and fascist and LITERALLY HITLER.

    Ditto for enforcing the laws on workplace safety, or identity theft, or tax laws, etc.etc. So you see, ‘liberals’ will cry for more laws helping ‘the working class’ – unless these laws threaten the cheap labor profits of the rich and powerful, in which case laws helping ‘the working class’ are racist and fascist and LITERALLY HITLER.

    Any questions?

  12. smoker

    Yet as we[’re] well aware, government appetite for enforcement of laws that protect workers is not as strong as it should be.

    Sounds more like (just like the US) there is no Strong Appetite for Enforcement, nor Strong Enforcement of Employment Laws – let alone Strong Employment Laws in and of themselves – particularly for non unionized employees, but even for unionized employees. The Laws, Enforcement of them, and Appetite to Enforce them need to be made strong, before they can even be made ‘stronger.’

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