Modern Slavery In The Garment Industry – and Knickers In Gateshead

Back in my youth, age 15, I got a Saturday job to support my developing album-buying habit. A chap who lived over the road from us left his job as a clothing buyer for the big department store in Sunderland, and set up as a market trader in the indoor Gateshead Market. It was a somewhat odd place on the ground floor of the brutalist and iconic multi-story car park (now demolished), used to great effect in the north-eastern 1960s gangster film Get Carter.  (Pic: Bob Castle)

It was a somewhat dingy place, and the fresh fish stall was a little near ours for comfort, but quite busy and successful, and our neighbour did remarkably well. Within a few years he had several shops, stalls and a wholesale business, and moved away from my parents to a much bigger house!

His business model was to drive down to the Midlands in a van every week and buy “seconds” in clothing – largely ladies underwear, woollens and hosiery – direct from the factories around Derby, Nottingham and Leicester. Much of their output was destined for outlets such as M&S, BHS and C&A, but he would buy the stuff that didn’t quite make the grade.

So, my job as a teenager was selling knickers and bras with small holes around the label, or sweaters with one arm slightly longer than the other, to the ladies of Gateshead. The not very affluent ladies of Gateshead, it should be said. It was an illuminating experience for a young man, I can tell you.

But to finally get onto our main point for today. The textiles manufacturing industry in the Midlands was devastated by cheap imports through the nineties and noughties. You can probably buy a new, perfect t-shirt from Primark for almost the same as we charged for seconds in the 1970s – clothing has become so much cheaper relative to earnings. I don’t know what happened to our neighbour, but if he survived, one assumes he had to change his business model.

So many of us assumed the UK textiles industry had pretty much gone altogether. But no – it does still exist, although with a much smaller footprint of course. This is not necessarily a good news story however. Last week, the CEO of New Look, a major clothing retailer, hit out at the standards of UK garment manufacturing firms. From a health, safety and employee welfare point of view, they compared badly with factories in Asia, he said in an article in The Times.

“Many of Britain’s clothing factories have worse ethical standards than manufacturers in China, Bangladesh and Burma, the boss of one the UK’s biggest fashion retailers has claimed. Anders Kristiansen, chief executive of New Look, said the “vast majority” of factories in Britain underpay staff and fail health and safety standards, and that much of the competition is deliberately turning a blind eye.

“People just don’t care — they care about standards in Asia but not on their own doorstep,” Mr Kristiansen said. “We had 118 UK suppliers just three years ago, now we have 12. I don’t want to be a part of it. Our competitors don’t see it the same way. They know about the problem but don’t want to fix it.””

He also claimed that some UK factories employ people on benefits and pay them just a couple of pounds an hour (as they still claim benefits). So this is fraud against the British taxpayer as well as the negative implications for the individuals involved. It is truly shocking, but it does stack up with a report from the Channel 4 Dispatches programme earlier this year which also uncovered factories in Leicester paying below minimum wage and disregarding other standards.

This all sounds remarkably like modern slavery, a hot topic of course for procurement and other people in recent years. But it is still terrible to hear that this goes on so close to home, in a developed country with apparently strong legislative protections in place.

And somebody, a buyer for a retailer or wholesaler of some sort, is of course purchasing goods from these producers. So buyers are supporting these bad practices, whether it is through incompetence or deliberate lack of care, which we would call “evil” basically. I don’t think anyone reading this wants to be incompetent or evil - so check your supply chain and make sure you’re not inadvertently helping the slavers.


PS We found this rather lovely video about the Gateshead car park on YouTube.

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