consumerism globalisation human rights shopping

Slave labour on the high street

At school, we all get taught that the slave trade was abolished in 1833 after a long campaign by William Wilberforce. It was a historic moment of course, but actually rather limited in the grand scheme of things. It stopped the trading of slaves within the British Empire, but in no way did it end slavery. Slavery is still with us, in a variety of forms. Last week, the Anti-Slavery International campaign shone a light on slavery in a place you might not expect: on Britain’s high streets.

Well, not exactly on the high streets. That’s just where the final products get sold, it’s the factories back along the supply chain that uses the actual slave labour. In this case, garment factories in India. A number of companies are implicated, running factories that take on young women between 13 and 18, on three year contracts. Once hired, the women are confined to the factory in what are essentially prison conditions. They work whatever hours are assigned to them, they are not allowed out of the grounds and access to visitors is extremely limited. They are paid below the minimum wage and below what they were promised, conditions are very poor and health and safety is negligible. Unable to leave once they have signed up, it is slavery in all but name.

The companies are able to do this by exploiting local cultural conditions. The women are recruited young and single, largely from the lowest dalit caste. Rather than take home a living wage, employees work towards a large lump sum payment when they complete the three year stint. Since large dowries are paid when a daughter gets married, that is very tempting for poor families who might not be able to get the money together otherwise. What looks like a lifeline turns out to be very different, since many women fall ill and are fired before they reach three years, or are released without the payment over some technicality. (See this BBC radio report for some examples)

Back at this end of the chain, you and I can buy the cheap goods made by these women in Asda, Mothercare, Marks and Spencer, Tesco, H+M, Primark, Next, John Lewis, JD Sports, and a number of other outlets. Most of these big chains insist, of course, that they work with their suppliers to avoid this kind of thing. Some of them don’t bother pretending, and have not responded to Anti-Slavery’s invitation to work with them to eradicate the practice.

I find these sorts of stories hugely exasperating. The widespread use of sweatshops, child labour and forced labour have been well known in the fashion industry for twenty years now. Every year there are two or three exposes or investigations, a short flurry of stories in the press. Every time the brands declare themselves to be shocked and horrified, and say they will inspect their suppliers better in future. A couple of years later, they’re caught out again. Something is clearly not working in the efforts to improve the ethics of fashion.

What’s particularly sad about this report is that the abuses were first discovered by Anti-Slavery in 2010, after interviews with over 200 women. Rather than take it to the press, they approached the brands first, inviting them to work together through the Ethical Trading Initiative to solve the problem. The brands all recognised the issue and most of them agreed to do something about it.

Instead of working with the NGOs and trade unions that had highlighted the problem however, they issued their own statement independently, with only the vaguest of commitments to fix anything. The Slavery on the High Street report goes public with a huge amount of work behind it, and so far just another set of empty promises to show for it. There is unfortunately no reason to believe that, this time, the brands mean what they say. By cutting out the NGOs and unions, they will not be accountable to anybody. Expect another inevitable expose, and new expressions of ‘shock’ from them in a couple of years’ time.

Why is it so hard to eradicate exploitative labour? Are there any viable solutions, or is this just something we need to live with? That will have to be another post.


  1. Sorry to say that this reply box opened for my reply leading me to think I was already logged in. I then worked on my comment over some time, attempted to post it only to have the ‘not logged in’ page appear and my whole comment removed on my return! What a silly and frustrating system WordPress! Can you prevent this pit-fall by using some more obvious sign in advance of the dialogue box expanding for immediate use?
    (Incidentally, I had to use this page’s comment box as unusually there was no option on Jeremy’s e-mail post.) Now the connection to WordPress is not succeeding, so I’ll probably end up in square one and get nowhere!

  2. One difficulty in acquainting oneself with slavery today —so that steps can be taken to stamp it out—is that there is so damn much of it, everywhere, in so many different forms.

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