However, when those same abuses are happening on our own doorstep, it's much more difficult to shrug and turn away.
We've all seen the stories that crop up every Christmas, of the big online retailers treating their employees and temp staff like cattle or machines during the festive crunch. Amazon always gets a kicking in the press in December. But we're starting to see poor or downright dangerous working conditions, forced overtime and low pay migrating to many UK-based brand names, such as Sports Direct.
An exposé in Channel 4's documentary stream Dispatches shows that worryingly, this trend is growing. Undercover footage in factories that were producing garments for high street stores like New Look and online brands like Missguided and Boohoo both showed worryingly lax safety standards and a decidedly cavalier approach towards the National Living Wage.
Belal, an undercover reporter for Dispatches, was paid a mere £3 per hour to label and barcode clothes for Fashion Square, a factory producing clothes for River Island–£4.20 less than the advised minimum. When he challenged the owner of the factory, the response was surprising...
Boss: How much do you get paid in London?
Belal: It depends where you’re working.
Boss: That’s why I’ve asked to see you. You won’t get paid as much as that for the work you’re doing here.
Belal: I spoke to, and he said he’ll let me know how much he’ll pay me after he’s seen my work.
Boss: Yes, yes. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. What were you paid in London?
Belal: I got at least £7.20.
Boss: You won’t get that here. That’s what I’m telling you. We don’t get paid much for our clothes, and we need to compete with China and Bangladesh.They can get it cheap there. How will they get it made cheaper here? If we pay everyone £10 or £6 then we will make a loss.
Belal: You are comparing it with Bangladesh and places like that?
Boss: Yes, yes, yes. This is the situation.
Belal also ran shifts at United Creations Ltd, a factory contracted to make clothes for online retailers BooHoo and Missguided. Here again, he was paid less than £4 per hour. More worryingly, the working conditions were considered incredibly dangerous by safety expert Richard Lloyd. Flammable materials were stacked close to hot machinery, and there was even footage of a worker smoking on the factory floor. Lloyd said:
“What people don’t appreciate is that fires happen very very rapidly, there’s a smoke build up, there’s a low ceiling, the people are partly panicking and the doors open the wrong way anyway.”
The show is a terrifying eye-opener to the conditions to which garment workers are exposed in the rush for fast fashion profit. It's becoming clear that abuses of a vulnerable workforce are not confined to the developing world–they're happening on our streets too.
The second show in the strand is screening tonight at 8pm on Channel Four. This first episode is available to stream or download via catch-up services, or through channel4.com.