A New Industry on a Skewed Playing Field: Supply Chain Relations and Working Conditions in UK Garment Manufacturing
reportposted on 01.02.2016, 11:54 by Nikolaus Hammer, R. Plugor, P. Nolan, I. Clark
UK garment manufacturing is at a crossroads. It has seen the emergence of new business models that are competitive in a globalised industry, integrated into global supply chains and developed relevant management systems. In contrast, the regulatory environment is largely geared to a model that has gone out of business. The average size of a garment manufacturer has declined by more than 60% over the last two decades, with 82% of firms employing less than 10 employees in 2013. These two drivers – sourcing and purchasing practices as well as product and labour market regulations – have in many ways resulted in a new, very different, industry which is dominated by small firms, fragmented supply chains, a largely vulnerable workforce, and the absence of enterprise-level industrial relations and worker representation. Those drivers constitute pressures and opportunities that characterise the new garment manufacturing industry. In the process, however, they have skewed the playing field in the workplace as well as in product markets and have led to adverse outcomes. For example, extensive research within Leicester as a UK sourcing hub found that the majority of garment workers are paid way below the National Minimum Wage, do not have employment contracts, and are subject to intense and arbitrary work practices. Equally, a number of manufacturers have made considerable investments to meet rising demand, only to find themselves undercut by competitors that violate minimum work and employment standards. An important piece in the puzzle of the skewed playing field is that new industry structures have rendered existing forms of private and public regulation unfit for purpose. Selective monitoring is not able to address factory level practices in the context of the push of sourcing and purchasing practices, as well as the pull of a vulnerable labour supply and weakened labour market regulations. The avoidance of statutory regulations, however, is dysfunctional in many respects: it exposes lead firms and the local economy to considerable reputation risks, disadvantages compliant manufacturers, and thoroughly fails to protect workers. Nonetheless, garment manufacturing in the UK has good prospects, evidenced in increasing turnover and employment, if it can address the challenges that result from the avoidance of business and employment standards. These challenges pose fundamental questions for practices of supply chain management, related issues of transparency and accountability, as well as the public and private regulation of inter-firm relations and employment standards. This report has gathered sufficient evidence to suggest the highlighted practices are significant within the industry. A range of methods and data sources was used in order to triangulate and assess the validity of different data, from official statistics and news and Lead firms House databases to information from whistleblowers; from lead firms’ (retailers and brands), suppliers’ and manufacturers’ experiences to a small-scale survey of garment workers. This variety of methods allowed the research to assess and even out the disadvantages any single approach has when investigating hidden aspects of the supply chain, the employment relationship, or the production process. The research design aimed to optimise depth (a case study of apparel manufacturing in Leicester as a major hub) and access (investigating the supply chains of 10 lead brands). Against the background of industry and labour market statistics as well as stakeholders’ UK-wide experiences, the data can be considered valid and robust with regard to the UK’s dynamic Fast Fashion industry.