It’s Friday evening at 6:30pm. And, as with every Friday at 6:30pm during lockdown, my family is on a collective Zoom call to discuss our respective weeks simultaneously, with no one listening to a word anyone else is saying.
Chief, and most important of the Zoom conventions, is to raise your glass to the camera, and have a lengthy discussion about what your tipple is for the evening, how you came by it (queued for hours outside the little brewery; ordered online from the local wine shop, came the very next day, brilliant; finishing off this weird liquor we got for Christmas two years ago), and how much of it you’re going to consume (a whole keg). You know the drill.
The Family also demand to know what you’re having for tea; and whether you’ve already eaten it or will eat it subsequent to the ‘conversation’.
Children invariably make an awkward cameo in their jim-jams, shouting half-sentences about their day (‘IT’S ALL CWACKED AND DRY!’ (the mud pie at the allotment, not mummy’s lockdown complexion); ‘HESTER’S BIKE UP AND DOWN THE ROAD’) that make absolutely no sense to relatives that are obliviously talking about their locally produced, novelly-named wheat beers.
Then comes P. His newborn is three weeks old, so, to be forgiving, he’s knackered. My sister, looking ever glamorous and inconceivably gorgeous, is wilting on the sofa. My suddenly non-shielding parents sit beside her, beaming. They have come to visit and help out. They present a curious visual illusion, since for the duration of lockdown we have all been on the same screen but inhabiting different boxes. My younger brother, coming late to the call, points to my mum and sister, says in a confused manner, “there should be a line between you two”.
P holds his three-week-old wailing thing (my lovely nephew), as we talk about how Older Brother will not be able to come to a family garden party for Father’s birthday. Older Brother lives in Leicester. Leicester is in a local lockdown. Conversation moves to why local lockdown is happening, with a short flurry of indistinct comments on the Boohoo scandal.
‘Dark factories’ have been in operation throughout lockdown. Less-than-min-wage workers are making cheap clothes for major online fashion brand Boohoo, working in dangerous conditions with no PPE.
Time for ‘Pipes up P’, to say with a laugh:
“I mean, how stupid do you have to be to work for half the minimum wage?”[i]
As with most family conversations, I am used to hearing things I do not agree with. At least one of my family members (who shall remain unnamed), voted for Brexit (and not for any good reason, I promise). Way more than one is a Tory. We have our differences. I have become near-immune.
But not to this.
My sister and I exchanged the wide eyes. Meanwhile, P explains his comment to mum, who began by defending the workers but who quickly agreed ‘Oh, quite right’. I didn’t hear his mumbles, so I don’t know how he won her around.
The conversation continued and reached its eventual, tedious conclusion. Are the longest minutes in the world the ones where you’re waving and the box at the top promises ‘Less than a minute’ on your call??
Anyway, I cannot get this question – and its accompanying chuckle – out of my mind. And I must confess, part of this is shame. I am ashamed that I simply exchanged ‘the look’ with my sis. I am ashamed that I didn’t rage on, shut the laptop, anything. Most of all, I am ashamed that I didn’t express my opinion that comments like that are not ok. They are not welcome amongst civilised conversation as I see it. They should not be welcome anywhere.
This happens to me so often. And I lack the confidence to address these situations at the time. Perhaps it is wrong of me to suggest I should have raged. I could equally have explained why that comment was ignorant and – dare I say it – far more worthy of the epithet ‘stupid’. But I’m not confident. I don’t know facts and/or can’t recall them quickly to shut this kind of intolerant anti-human bullshit down.
I’ve thought about it a lot. And after a whole day of quite possibly irritating my partner with apropos-of-nothing outbursts like ‘Garrrrgh like they even have a choice’, I decided I ought at least to explore whether there were any substance, any evidence, any backing to my innate belief that this sentence was indeed the most stupid-fucking-ignorant-uncaring thing I’d heard in a good while. So here we go.
Definition of ‘stupid’
Let’s start by examining in more detail the sentence spoken by Brother-In-Law.
Stupid: Lacking intelligence or common sense; informal, used to express exasperation or boredom; dazed and unable to think clearly. Origin from Old French, originally Latin, to be amazed or stunned.[ii]
Definition of ‘half the minimum wage’
Currently £8.72 an hour.[iii] So, half of that is £4.36.
The minimum wage came into force in April 1999. There were concerns it would drive lower-paid workers out of work. The report celebrating 20 years of the NMW says this is not the case. [iv]
However, it also has to be acknowledged that there is a darker side of the NMW – employers who do not meet the NMW are illegally employing people, therefore are much more likely not to be complying with other employer responsibilities such as safe working environments. This is borne out by numerous descriptions of ‘dark factories’ in Leicester. The Financial Times have written an excellent article on this very issue.[v]
The long story: (short and potted) history of garment factories in Leicester
Leicester’s proud phrase used to be “Leicester clothes the world”.[vi]
In the early 1980s, a garment worker in Leicester could enjoy a good wage, decent working conditions, even finishing in the early afternoon of a Friday. Very nice![vii]
However, it must be said that there has always been exploitation of the most vulnerable, and we will put low-wage earners in that bracket. The Institute of Historical Research gives an example of a commission set up in the 19th century in Leicester to investigate exploitation of garment workers by people who charged them rent for the ‘frames’ they used. These frames were often sublet, and the sub-letters charged multiple workers full-time rent for part-time usage, therefore making a profit from workers who had little choice but to rent the machines, as they could not afford to buy their own.[viii]
Back to the twentieth century. Gradually (and especially with the demise of BHS), garment making moved abroad to places like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (please look up Rana Plaza[ix] to read about appalling conditions for workers in some factories over there). The British garment making industry had all but disappeared. But what about those who had built their careers upon it, had very specific working skills, and perhaps a limited knowledge of the English language, after living and working in small communities for many years?
Like so many industries (not least the automotive industry that my father was part of), the garment industry works upon demand and competition. For many, many reasons (shout-out to the Internet, fast fashion, celebrities, Instagram, influencers, individualism, disposable consumerism, disposable income) demand began to return for garments made quickly and cheaply in the UK. A young woman peruses the Internet, looks on Instagram, sees fave celebrity wearing a dress, wants dress, orders dress for party the next day.
According to a report, “Generally, Boohoo Group Ltd accounts for almost 75–80% production in Leicester and sources around 60–70% of its production from Leicester. This has reportedly increased in recent weeks to around 80%.”[x]
We as consumers so often do not ask questions like: where does this dress come from? Why is it only 7 quid? Why does it fall apart after washing it twice (not that I’d wear it more than that anyway)? Who actually made this? Are they being paid fairly? What is the price for a dress ordered and delivered so quickly, for so little money?
There have to be consequences to fast fashion. The part I’m used to reading about is the woeful impact upon the environment. But humans suffer too, they suffer terribly.
The demand for clothes to come quick and be cheap could readily be answered by getting your clothes to be made in the UK. Right? That’s got to be quicker than shipping it from China. But the UK has strict employment laws that prevent workers from being exploited enough to make this a viable option. You simply cannot sell a dress for under a tenner that’s been made by someone paid a living wage. The so-called ‘dark factories’[xi] found an answer to this dilemma. The workers would work for 40 hours at half the minimum wage. But their pay slips would say they worked 20 hours.
There is much to gain by doing this, and little to lose. A BBC article suggests that a report found, “statistically, employers could expect a minimum wage compliance visit from HMRC inspectors just once in 250 years”.[xii] Even more tellingly, the Big Businesses stand to lose even less by exploiting their workers in this way. The House of Commons Library published this in a recent article: “Under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, companies with a turnover of more than £36 million must publish an annual statement on transparency in its supply chains. This can include information about its modern slavery policies and due diligence processes. However, this only applies to modern slavery, which includes slavery, forced labour and human trafficking but not to other forms of exploitation like underpayment. A Government-commissioned independent review found that publication of these statements is not monitored and there are no penalties for not doing so.”[xiii]
The traps and limitations
But why, says P, would you accept work under these conditions?
Perhaps let’s start by accepting that there are some human beings who are intelligent, who decide to gain a set of skills in a thriving industry in their local area, who build a career around these skills. Then, these intelligent and hard-working folks begin to see the industry changing around them, moving manufacturing abroad, with their jobs sliding slowly into worse and worse conditions. Might they not feel trapped in this industry? They have worked there for 40 years, are getting towards the age of retirement. It may be difficult, nigh-on impossible to find another job with a skillset that is so specialised. Faced with this situation, you would not be entirely ‘stupid’ (lacking common sense) to weigh up your options and decide to ‘ride it out’, hope for better conditions or simply that you will be able to retire before it gets too difficult.
Let’s talk more about the changing of the industry around us. Here’s an interest excerpt from an article on migrant workers:
Over the past thirty years the decline of the manufacturing sector has seen employment in what had been thought of secure, ‘jobs-for-life’ trades slip back from 30 to 11 per cent of the workforce – down from 6.8 million to 2.5 million people.
The jobs market now has an hourglass shape, with an increase in the numbers employed in white-collar positions requiring administrative and technical skill, in the upper half of the setup. (That’s you, P)
An equally large bulge makes up the lower half of the hourglass, which marks out a place where work is available on terms which require ultra-flexibility from employees right up to the point of the numbers on minimum hours contracts.
With such poor conditions on offer the firms operating this business model are only able to meet their needs for labour by using employment agencies which specifically target groups of people who are in the most marginal positions with regard to accessing decent jobs.
Recruitment teams will travel to towns and cities in economically depressed areas with a remit to sign up quotas of candidates for the jobs their clients have asked them to fill.
The risks here will be mitigated if there are escalators in place that move people from low-waged, entry level employment to jobs with better terms and conditions. Then the workers involved will usually regard it as having served its purpose.
The problem is – and this is another structural feature of our modern-day labour markets – entry level jobs too often turn out to be blind alleys which trap workers into low pay and demoralising conditions.
As the Work Foundation recently put it after drawing on evidence from its ‘Bottom Ten Million’ research programme, the hourglass polarisation of the labour market has created additional challenges for social mobility with low wage work more often operating as a dead-end rather than an escalator.[xiv]
That was a long extract! But interestingly put. People have done studies into your very question P (perhaps not put in quite the same way you did): why is it that people work in low-wage jobs?
Some of the answers I spotted above: recruiters travelling to places where there is already economic deprivation to hire people; people with limited skills and limited education have to start somewhere, and so take these jobs as a way of working. But they are not jobs that can lead to better things, and so they are trapped in this cycle. Not stupid, but difficult, depressing, concerning.
The difficulties of other employment and benefits
How easy is it to find another job? As with many injustices in our society at the moment, racial discrimination lurks behind this problem too. Perhaps that was one of the reasons that made the exclamation so hateful to me, and so much more insidious than a flippant comment.
Many of the Leicester garment workers come from Asian communities. It has been shown that “a large proportion of workers in Leicester garment factories were born outside of the UK and that many came from South Asia. They argued that a worker’s limited English language skills or issues with their immigration status can make them particularly vulnerable to exploitation.”[xv]
Labour Behind the Label comments further, “In Leicester, it is estimated that most garment workers are from minority ethnic groups. Around 33.6% were born outside the UK (e.g. from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh but also Somalis and increasingly Eastern Europeans). These workers are vulnerable to abuse as a result of their immigration status, language skills, integration in the community (and support mechanisms such as union membership etc.) as well as higher unemployment rates.”[xvi]
And according to a recent study, levels of discrimination in employment against Black and Asian people are “shocking”. Did you know, a Black or Asian person has to send 80% more applications than a white person to receive a call-back?[xvii]
These conditions are not just confined to those who work in the factories. A Guardian article reported early on in lockdown of the problems faced by warehouse staff, fulfilling the orders of boob-tubes and playsuits ordered during the international pandemic: ““The bosses tell us to keep two metres apart but they aren’t actually instructing anybody in how they are supposed to do that,” said one worker.”[xviii]
Perhaps then, with the avenue of available jobs being so very much narrower, perhaps because of your skin colour, you may end up getting work where you can get it. Perhaps being paid lower than you should be. Perhaps not because you have no common sense, but because you have the common sense to realise you haven’t got much of a choice.
The benefits stigma
I wanted to consider the stigma of not being in work as well. Could the pressure to find a job drive you into a job that pays less than benefits? Quite possibly. Although it is difficult to evidence, there are strong suggestions that ‘benefits stigma’ as it is called, is widespread in this country.[xix] Their work suggested that an “outright majority … disagree that ‘people are generally treated with respect when they claim benefits’” [my emphasis].
There is also the trouble that people who are ‘other than white’ ethnically, are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as the white population (7% vs 4%). If you can get a job, better stick with it, because the threat of unemployment is larger for you if you are not white.[xx]
Difficulties and flaws with universal credit
The Race Equality Commission (REC) found that “Members of black and minority ethnic communities are likely to be disproportionately impacted by Universal Credit (UC).”[xxi]
The Institute of Education also found that “75 per cent of Pakistani and Bangladeshi children … aged seven live in poverty”.[xxii]
It’s also more difficult for those in ethnic minority groups to access Universal Credit due to language barriers and barriers to digital access.[xxiii]
So, as I see it, workers feel they have no alternative: they are rightly concerned that they will not be able to get jobs elsewhere; they cannot meaningfully enter into an employment market that reeks of discrimination; and they cannot easily fall back on benefits whilst they are considering their options.
Don’t let us fall into the narrative that they are helpless, hapless victims. Garment workers the world over are fighting for their rights.[xxiv] But they are fighting against multi-national companies and a huge, powerful industry. They are fighting against the apathy of governments and individuals alike.
Garment workers have well-documented struggles against horrific working conditions, and this is part of a systemic problem with consumerism, fast fashion, and colossal, global inequality.
Are they therefore to be denounced and dismissed as ‘stupid’? Or are they living in a world where the odds are stacked against them? Do they exist in a hinterland, where white, privileged middle-class people can mostly ignore them entirely, except for when they come up on conversation on a Friday evening in a Zoom call to the family, where they can be quickly dismissed with a laugh and a comment?
“How stupid do you have to be to work for half the minimum wage?”
Beki writes poetry and other forms of thoughts, in between teaching English and living with two very young people who call her mummy.
Resources (in addition to references)
[i] P’s exclamation in the family Zoom call: 10th July 2020
[ii] Oxford English Dictionary
[vii] See example from the FT article