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What makes people vulnerable to labour exploitation?

16th January 2024 | From our team

The Clewer Initiative

In Spring 2022, the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab and De Montfort University interviewed workers in the garment and textile industry in Leicester (UK) about their working conditions and expectations. Their responses help us understand more about labour exploitation.

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Fashioning a beautiful future? summarises the findings of the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab and De Montfort University investigation. It seeks to explore why certain workers were more likely than others to be exploited and uses Leicester's textile and garment industry as a case study.

The report outlines a number of reasons why workers in Leicester were particularly vulnerable to exploitation:

• A general lack of understanding of employment rights: the industry is predominately run by and employs members from one particular ethnic community. “Because of their close knit nature, and the racism and isolation that many have experienced” links between workers and factory owners are close. In addition, many workers are encouraged to recruit friends, while others pay fees to obtain employment. This affects workers’ discernment – if family or friends have encouraged them into the job, they may feel unable to speak out. Interestingly, Romanian and Bulgarian workers are reportedly more likely to engage with informal and formal worker organisations to protect pay and conditions than workers from South Asia.

• Poverty – where financial need is acute, vulnerability to exploitation can increase. Leicester City is in the 20% of Local Authorities in England with the highest levels of disadvantage

• Widespread inability to speak the language compounds the vulnerabilities of this community, along with precarities concerning immigration status – one in three of Leicester’s garment workers were born outside of the UK and do not necessarily have legal work status

• The informality of the industry makes monitoring compliance more difficult – many garment industry homeworkers within Leicester get paid as little as £2 per hour

• A perceived lack of options – workers described not being able to obtain other work due to a lack of English-language, a lack of skills or qualifications, not knowing about other jobs or how to find other jobs, not having transport to other jobs, and personal circumstances

All of the above has resulted in the normalisation of exploitative work practices. This research centres on the garment industry in Leicester but many of its observations and recommendations could apply worldwide.

To read the report in full, click here.

This article was initially published in week 1 of True Freedom, our new Lent resource. The course looks at factors that draw people into modern slavery and how the church can help protect vulnerable people from exploitation.

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