Home People & Planet The return of the UK sweatshop

The return of the UK sweatshop

Dan Durcan
Sweatshops are not just an Asian phenomenon, with recent manufacturing trends in fast fashion resulting in their re-emergence in the UK
Labour market specialist
The silhouette of two shoppers passing by a shopping street filled with international brands

In July 2020, the Sunday Times led with a COVID-19 story about working conditions in textile factories in Leicester, linked to outbreaks in the city. The paper found that suppliers for fashion giant Boohoo were forcing workers into factories despite government rules to the contrary. Leicester then became the first city in the country to go into a local lockdown.

The part of the story that shocked the public the most wasn’t the breach in lockdown rules, but the normal working conditions in these factories. They found instances of grave labour rights abuse, including allegations of modern slavery. The British public had presumed that sweatshops were an Asian phenomenon.

However, these parallels run deeper than mistreatment of workers. What was uncovered by the Sunday Times was a part of the textile production process that has changed little since industrialisation began. For the main part, the production of textiles has been changing continuously since the 1700s, with new machinery and production methods. However, a smaller yet substantial part has stayed more or less the same.


Industrialisation had ruined the pre-existing textile industry – the small-scale independent production based in rural cottages. Factory workers were impoverished and degraded. Should a factory worker avoid death or mutilation from the physical dangers of the factory, they could look forward to Mule Spinner’s cancer (caused by use of dangerous oils), and tuberculosis (from having to use their mouths to thread cotton through the shuttle needle).

Small scale production has always been a key part of the industrialised textile production system. While the factory worker was degraded by a 12-hour shift, the home workers had it far worse, working late into the night.

The UK—adopting new technologies, new forms of worker organisations, and having favourable market conditions (through the British Empire)—was able to become the world’s preeminent cotton textile producer.

However, the hold was inevitably challenged. Other industrialised nations fought for the UK’s share of the market. Competition came from America, where higher wages drove greater investment in machinery. More and more countries adopted and often improved upon British manufacturing techniques. By the 1950s Britain was importing more cotton than it was exporting.

Despite this relative decline, there were many positive developments in the industry. The industry moved away from heavily exploiting labour. Instead there was a move to adopt new technologies, and to rely on higher skilled and higher waged workforces. This can be seen with examples of the Courtlands and Clarement Garments, a major supplier at the time. They saw a 72% increase in productivity between 1963 and 1973.

One of the cities at the heart of the industry, Leicester, was ranked second place in the League of Nations’ list of richest cities in Europe in 1936.


By the 1980s, with the advent of outsourcing, the industry had all but disappeared. Labour costs in Asia meant that it was near impossible for British textile manufactures to compete in the international market. It was a trend that continued beyond the 1980s. Between 1995 and 2012, manufacturing of apparel declined by 69%. Total turnover in this period fell by 64%. The number of enterprises declined by 61% and its contribution to total manufacturing fell from 2% to 0.6%.

The consequences for mill towns were dire. High unemployment followed, compounded by collapses in other manufacturing industries. Leicester is symbolic of this decline. It now has a child poverty rate of 27% before housing costs, and was the 18th most deprived local authority in the UK in 2019.

However, the story of the textile industry in the UK does not end here. In fact, it takes a distressing turn. The centre of gravity of global textile production had certainly moved, but the complex nature of global supply chains meant that a stubborn portion of the production process still exists. Old machinery was bought, and smaller units set up for a small-scale production model.

Changing modes of production

Small scale production has always been a key part of the industrialised textile production system. For instance, of the roughly 150,000 people employed in lace production in England in the 1860s, a mere 10,000 worked in factories. The remaining 140,000, overwhelmingly women and children, worked at home, away from regulations on working conditions that came with the factory acts. While the factory worker was degraded by a 12-hour shift, the home workers had it far worse, working late into the night completing large orders of lace by hand.

In Industrial England, the industrial geography and limits of technology shaped the geographic distribution of small-scale production centres. They were clustered around the main factories. This reflected the transportation links and nature of the textile products produced at the time. The final product leaving the factory would be shipped off round the world. Therefore, additional components (such as adding lace) would be completed close to the factory. Thanks to changing consumer habits, driven by the internet, this geography has now been turned on its head, with the small-scale production models being located close to the consumer. Specifically, the advent of fast fashion has allowed for the re-emergence of small-scale textile production in the UK.

Fast fashion

These factories produce cheap trendy clothing that reaches the consumer in record time. In the past, the notion of a ‘season’ was key in fashion. Now new lines are introduced up to once a week. The intense turnaround in this industry means low costs and low quality. Factories have to be highly adaptable and close to the consumer. This is how the UK can compete with larger factories in countries such as Bangladesh.

In the old mill town of Leicester, there are an estimated 1,500 factories employing 10,000 people. A far cry from the innovation of the megalith factories employing hundreds if not thousands of people, these factories typically employ 10 people. The old vast open plan mills are split into small units where workers are crowded to work their long and strenuous shifts.

The sweatshops of England are a bleak industrial development. What the fast fashion factories show is that progress isn’t guaranteed. Poor employment practices will exist wherever they are permitted, be it in Bangladesh or Bradford.

The relationship between these small-scale production methods is a constant throughout the history of the industrialised textile industries. Large factories rely on the application of cutting-edge technology and the precise management of time and effort of workers. The small-scale production units have no substantial capital investment. They rely on the brute force of their workers to fulfil orders. Increasing production comes from an increased quality of labour exploited at the same rate. This applies equally now as it did to the 1800s.

Workers and working conditions in fast fashion

An obvious sign that this is a problematic industry is the underpayment of the national minimum wage. The UK has a minimum wage rate of £8.72/hr. What the Leicester textile workers earn is nowhere close to this amount. In 2010, one investigation found workers being offered £2/hr, another in 2017 found them earning £3/hr.

A Financial Times investigation in 2017 found £3.5/hr being offered, and the average of around £4.25/hr. Factories often under-record hours, so people’s payslips look as if they have been paid the minimum wage. Most recently, the Sunday Times reported offers of £3.5/hr. Incidentally, the amount of undercover investigations over the past 10 years illustrates that this is far from an unknown problem.

Low wages come with other poor employment practices. One is the late and non-payment of wages. Another is artificially recording hours so that workers can claim state benefits. Temporary job contracts are used in abundance so that companies only employ staff during busy periods.

There is widespread lack of health and safety protocols. Illegal immigrants are knowingly employed. An illegal immigrant has close to zero employment rights, and if they raise such breaches with the authorities, they are likely to be deported, and they don’t have many options for employment.

One company attempting to improve working conditions found it difficult to recruit staff because so many were illegal immigrants, who they could not legally employ. Workers also have reported legal breaches including blocked fire escapes, old machines and no holiday or sick pay.

The work itself is repetitive and stressful. Research by the Centre for Sustainable Work and Employment Futures found that 80% of respondents could never or only rarely take a break when they wish. Meanwhile, 43% always or mostly experience stress at work. Two thirds of this survey response reported that they felt their job had deteriorated in the past two years. Bullying and threats are reported to be the norm, and workers are financially penalised for mistakes, which in many cases are quality problems and not in workers’ control or due to design or problems with the fabric.

How companies evade regulation

These forms of production exist outside of the regulation of authorities. While some effort is required to evade regulations, it isn’t onerous. This is an industry based on various levels of subcontracting. Therefore, when a Highstreet brand orders from one company; the order is then subcontracted to another. The main Highstreet brand therefore has complete deniability of any illegal behaviour. New Look, River Island, Boohoo and Missguided were all found to be linked to these factories in a 2017 investigation. All stated that that this was without their permission or knowledge.

There is a high level of illegality to all this, but the central government has hamstrung every approach to tackling the problem. The main government actors capable of tackling the problem have been devastated by austerity, and there has been a cool response to their attempts to innovate. Finally, there is an inability for trade unions to make much of a mark here as workers are from hard-to-reach groups, and there is heavy handed legislation designed to limit their organisation.

Low wages come with other poor employment practices. One is the late and non-payment of wages. Another is artificially recording hours so that workers can claim state benefits. There is also a widespread lack of health and safety protocols.

The consequences of these advantages are clear. The average UK employer can expect an

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs inspection once every 500 years, based on current statistics. Health and safety inspection visits have been cut by a third. The local government lacks the enforcement power despite their pleas. The most recent statistics for trade union density for the sector are around a decade out of date, where they stood at around 8%. For these factories, it is likely to be much lower given the difficulty of organising in such conditions.

The most substantial enforcement drive is immigration-related. This creates its own problems as it discourages illegal immigrants to speak out about any abuses. However, even when these powers are used, it is a game of cat and mouse. There is an example of a business raided twice in a space of two months. The company director resigned and started a new company with a slightly different name. This is a recurrent pattern in the industry.

What needs to be done?

The sweatshops of England are a bleak industrial development. What the fast fashion factories show is that progress isn’t guaranteed. Poor employment practices will exist wherever they are permitted, be it in Bangladesh or Bradford. Governments need to avoid the temptation of assuming that sweatshops are either a temporary development or just part of a process.

The case of England shows that the worse employment practices can re-emerge. There is a clear lesson here: if we want to avoid these working conditions, robust action is a necessity. If the benefits of the industry aren’t trickling down after over 200 years, they aren’t going to start doing so anytime soon.

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Dan Durcan
Labour market specialist

Dan is a UK labour market specialist, having worked for trade unions, think tanks, and in local government. Most recently, he led the development of an inclusive economic development strategy for an East London Council. He is currently on sabbatical in Latin America.

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