IMG_5924What, if anything, can be learned from the campaigns undertaken just over a hundred years ago to strengthen the position of the most vulnerable and most hidden workers in Britain.  Here I take a look at today’s love of cheap fashion amid our uncomfortable awareness of the often extremely poor pay and conditions suffered by those who make our clothes, before comparing it to concerns expressed at the start of the 20th century.

Despite the best efforts of those who sneer at the very thought of the high street, fashion is – and should be – a great leveller. When I was growing up, cheap clothing looked cheap and it set you apart. Many of my friends had more money than me and I discovered that the best way to mask a lack of funds was to be ‘alternative’ – to adopt a grungy style that drew attention not to my limited wardrobe but to a statement of difference. I bought bits and pieces from markets and temporary shops and I adapted things but what I really wanted was choice.  This is the main reason why I delight in Primark and wish that it had existed when I was a teenager. On Saturday afternoons, the store is full of young women trying on outfits for a night out. How brilliant is that. And there’s more. I also love the pride with which parents on low incomes can dress their babies and no one can tell if the little one is rocking Primark or JoJo Maman Bebe.

Yesterday I did a pictorial quiz online to see if I could tell the difference between Primark and high end fashion. I guessed a third right but I really had no idea which was which. In other words, you can go out in a Primark dress with your head held high, safe in the knowledge that you look and feel great. When my teenage boys were growing up, I couldn’t afford the labels they wanted in order to fit in. I knew why it was important to them and I never tried to persuade them towards ‘other’ (you have to decide these things for yourself) and so, when a Sports Soccer (now Sports Direct) store opened, it was a big relief for me and for them. No more BeWise joggers for my lads.

And yet the same affordable fashions and trends that go a little way towards removing them and us labels have a horrible sting in their tails. Our pleasure in affordable clothing is accompanied by cut throat competition amongst retailers and suppliers with prices being driven down in a race to get the must-have look out before anyone else and to do so at a lower cost than anyone else. We are aware that a great deal of production is sourced abroad (a quick look at the washing on my line today indicates Bangladesh, China, Cambodia and Turkey) and we are under no illusions that, despite the existence of ethical trading initiatives, conditions and wages for all workers are safe and fair. From time to time outsourced production makes the headlines in dramatic fashion; April 2013 saw the collapse of Rana Plaza, near Dhaka in Bangladesh, a building which housed several ready-made clothing factories. More than 1100 people died. Recently, an excellent article by Sarah O’Connor for the Financial Times[1] drew attention to so-named ‘dark factories’ in Leicester, in which workers are paid well below the minimum wage. Such garment factories or workshops (often with fewer than 20 employees) occupy space within former, much larger industrial units, where machinery can be outdated and where working conditions are very far from ideal. Leicester is not alone in this; online retailers such as Boohoo and Missguided rely on suppliers in other UK cities such as London and Manchester in order to sell clothes that are ‘trendy, fast and cheap’, to meet the demands of the so-called Instagram generation.

O’Connor’s examination of this section of the garment industry that has ‘become detached from UK employment law’ illustrates just how many things have gone wrong. Amid relentless pressure on suppliers to produce garments at the cheapest possible price, hours are under recorded to make it seem that the minimum wage is being paid (whereas £5 is regarded as a ‘top’ wage) and workers in the sector have little faith in government enforcement of fair pay. Safety standards are also being compromised – fabric is piled high, wires protrude from ceilings, fire escapes are blocked yet the number of inspections carried out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) under the Tory government has been reduced. And whilst local authorities have responsibility for building and fire safety, this depends on concerns or incidents being reported to them in the first place. With many factories or workshops unrepresented by trade unions, another layer of potential protection and inspection is lost to workers and community groups, offering employment advice, have seen their funding cut drastically. In this way, too many workers are becoming invisible.

But do we as consumers have responsibilities too? Do we keep buying, telling ourselves that boycotting certain stores or companies will only result in worsening hardship for those employed by manufacturers pressured into producing clothes at ever cheaper prices? The same concerns were growing over a hundred years ago when readymade clothing was becoming more widespread and the equivalent of those who turn their noses up at Primark today were pouring scorn on flighty young working class women stepping out in cheap versions of the latest fashions or blinging up their hats with faux fur, feathers and artificial flowers. It does not seem at all fair to me that those who can least afford it should be those chiefly blamed for perpetuating sweated working conditions in the UK and abroad. I am not trying to shift the blame away from those – like me – who buy cheap clothing (as opposed to designer fashion, although this is not immune from labour exploitation) but I do wonder if there is anything that we can learn from the campaigns that were run in Britain at the start of the twentieth century that were designed to protect the most vulnerable workers. What were the aims of those involved? Did they have any successes or did no one listen, given that the problems of exploitation have continued into yet another century?

Over a hundred years ago, trade union activists and social reformers sought to expose the poor wages and working conditions experienced by many so-called sweated workers in Britain and to seek improvements through a combination of labour organisation and state legislation. The Women’s Industrial Council (WIC) investigated women industrial workers’ pay and conditions in factories, workshops and amongst those producing goods in their own homes. The Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) sought to support and to strengthen women’s trade unionism and in 1906, its secretary, Mary Macarthur, pulled together the many small unions it had helped and turned them into the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), which developed branches across the country with varying degrees of success.

Neither the pressure groups nor this all- female trade union focused exclusively on garment workers but on the myriad industries in which women (and some men) were among the worst paid in the country. In seeking to influence public opinion, however, the various branches of the clothing industry perhaps drew some of the most emotive responses from the public for more or less the same reasons as they do today. These are goods that we either need or desire and it outrages us to find out that workers are being exploited because of our demand. The prettier and more delicate a garment was, the greater the impact that could be made by campaigners revealing the conditions under which it had been made. In Birmingham in 1910 it was discovered that women were being paid 3 and a ¼ pence for three hours work on a ‘very pretty child’s dress of white cashmere with smocked yoke, waist and wrists’.[2] So, it would take the worker seven 9 hour days to make six shillings (for context, an average male labourer’s wage in 1906 was reckoned to be just under 26 shillings), wages described at the time as pathologically low.

Many of the very worst paid workers received work from factory middlemen to do at home and when Mary Macarthur was asked, on behalf of a House of Commons Select Committee on home working, to provide evidence from the baby clothing trade, she visited a young woman in London making ‘little lace-trimmed garments by the dozen, at the rate of one penny each’. The woman had incipient diphtheria and because she had no bed clothes, was using the baby linen she was stitching to keep herself warm in bed at night. As a result of the visit, Macarthur spent six weeks in hospital after contracting diphtheria but, says her biographer, it was worth it for she was able to ‘bring home, to the committee and to the public, in the most vivid way, some of the consequences of sweating. When they saw it as setting death in the folds of a baby’s robe, they shuddered’.[3]

Sometimes wages looked reasonable enough on paper but workers seldom took home what they had actually earned. In the 1890s, for example, a garment manufacturer moved his workforce into a brand new factory in central Oxford, which was reckoned to ‘contain every modern requirement for the comfort of the employees’ and was praised for its basement dining room, inside toilets and lifts to all floors. Many manufacturers believed that they truly had their workforce’s interests at heart and after all, wasn’t it the most natural thing in the world for women to make clothes? Did they really need much in the way of wages for labour that was so inherently womanly? A worker in Coventry reckoned that the owner of the blouse making factory where she worked justified its low rates of piece work by believing that this was the sort of work that his own daughters liked doing, sitting in front of the fireside at home. And if that was so, how could it possibly be considered to be exploitative?

And so, when some of the workforce at the Oxford factory joined the NFWW, the branch secretary, Laura Leng, provided Mary Macarthur with details of life in the factory where the amounts earned by gown hands, bodice hands, knickers hands and general hands were never consistent from one week to the next, instead depending on the amount each managed to complete and on many deductions regularly applied. Lateness was met with a half day lock-out, workers had to buy their own reels of cotton – and the more work you hoped to finish, the more reels you would need to buy – and had  to pay for any broken needles. The WTUL uncovered lots more examples from across the country of how wages were reduced by fining workers, (most commonly) for producing faulty or damaged work, for talking, laughing, dancing in the lunch break or using the wrong staircase. Deductions were also made for being, for example, allowed to use the firm’s hot water to make tea, for paying the wages of a kitchen girl in the canteen, for having the staff toilets cleaned or by forcing employees to buy spoilt work. There were occasions when a worker discovered at the end of the week that not only was she to receive no wages but that she was in debt to the firm and what she owed would be taken out of her next wage packets.[4] This factory was no worse than other garment factories; its pay and working practices were fairly standard in the industry and it was no doubt a great deal safer and more comfortable to work here, in a modern, light  factory than in an old, cramped workshop or always surrounded by materials in your own home.

IMG_5882Ad from The Woman Worker, newspaper of the NFWW, 1907

The National Anti-Sweating League kept up the pressure on government to do something about pay levels. Exhibitions were held at which stalls were set up so that the public could see what homeworking entailed. It may have been little short of gawping, but the conditions, pressures and skills involved made strong impressions on visitors, including those who were in a position to – or inclined to – highlight the need for change. In 1909 the Trade Boards Act set minimum wages in (initially) four of the very worst paid of the so-called sweated industries – ready made and bespoke tailoring, cardboard box making, chain making and lace finishing. Whilst this undoubtedly raised wages within these industries (and more were later added), many employers nevertheless found ways to bypass the legislation, continuing to pay outworkers less than they were owed. In the Nottingham lace industry, where home work was given out by middle men or women, it took a very brave worker to refuse work offered at less than the legally set price, knowing not only that her neighbour would probably take it at the lower rate but that she would herself be denied future work as a result. As one of the organisers of the 1906 Sweated Industries Exhibition put it, ‘sweating follows unrestricted competition as naturally and inevitably as pain follows disease’. Trade Boards were replaced by wage councils in 1945 and still constant vigilance was required to ensure that workers were not falling below the safety net and this, in industries where workers were so often isolated, was difficult.

IMG_5883Ad from The Woman Worker, 1907

Trade union organisation was extremely difficult not least because of the high levels of victimisation experienced by members. In the Oxford factory, workers were careful not to talk about the union in work hours because they knew they were being watched and overheard. The firm’s manageress made it clear to all  that she could do without the ‘Union girls’ as she set about the ‘shameful treatment’ of some members who doubted that they would be able to remain in the branch if they wanted to stay on in the factory.

Low paid workers often questioned whether they could afford the weekly union fee (of a minimum of a penny a week) and it was hard to keep branches going even after successful strikes. The key seems to have been close contact with HQ, although that meant an enormous amount of work for a small team of organisers who were stretched to their limits. By the eve of the First World War, however, there were upwards of 70 NFWW branches and a growing team of local activists. Not all of these were industrial workers themselves, however, and this drew criticism from the more established (predominately male) labour movement. Whilst mistakes were sometimes made by negotiators who could be naïve and mess up, I have always thought that rather than criticising those non-workers (many of whom were married working class women), they should be applauded for their efforts on behalf of those who could not risk exposure. Their presence could shield union members, keeping them away from vindictive factory bosses who might wait for negotiations to be concluded and then sack the ‘trouble makers’.

The most vulnerable workers are still (again?) at risk of victimisation for being members of a union. A climate of aggression towards unionisation, lack of government vigilance (or care) towards the lowest paid and insufficient involvement from the larger unions have all resulted in too many people working in potentially unsafe conditions and unable to maintain the standards of living that everyone deserves. There are many problems; the number of trade union members in Britain has fallen from a peak of 13 million at the end of the 1970s to just over 6 million last year.[5] The TUC reckons that perhaps one in ten workers is in precarious employment. Anti-union laws and tabloid-peddled myths of the damage the labour movement has done to the British economy have not helped new workers to recognise the importance of union membership. And when new unions are being formed to represent those on the most precarious contracts, it would seem that the older trade unions have themselves retreated too far from the front line.

Recently, support plus the knowledge that they were not alone, helped two workers stand their ground in London. They worked as cleaners at a luxury car showroom in Kensington and were suspended after they joined the United Voices of the World (UVW) trade union, voting to strike in pursuit of the London Living Wage (LLW). In fact, it was discovered that as a result of deductions, they were not currently even receiving the minimum wage. Suspension turned into dismissal but with support and publicity from UVW, they were then reinstated and granted the LLW. This case – and so many others – is not just about wages but about respect and dignity. It is as Mary Macarthur said in 1907 – ‘the worker standing alone today is as powerless as a drop of water on a window-pane but when combined can become as powerful as that some drop of water can be when drawn into a rushing river or a surging sea’.[6]

IMG_5885Ad from The Woman Worker, 1907

I’m no employment expert but I can see that things are not as campaigners like Macarthur hoped they would be 100 years on. Macarthur’s long term aim was to bring women workers into the labour movement; trade unionism was not, she said, something outside of ourselves, it was not like an automatic machine at the railway station, into the slot of which we could put a penny and draw out higher wages.[7]

Now, as then, support, confidence and strength are vital to success. If we can offer our support to workers whenever and however we can so that they realise they are not hidden, perhaps this is how we can make a long term difference. In April, outsourced workers at the University of London went on strike, demanding to receive the employment rights of those directly employed by the University. The strikers are members of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), another new, small union seeking to give support to the most vulnerable of workers and crucially, their action was backed by other workers in HE and they were joined in demonstration and on the picket lines by supporters. We must keep up the pressure to ensure that all workers are safe, remembered, unionised and paid fairly.

There are of course lots of things that need to be done better but organisation still seems to me to be the best protection for vulnerable workers. Unions can insist on factory inspections when government does not, they can alert the public to wage levels and conditions. Binding together is surely still the best hope we have against unbridled competition in which everyone – employers as well as employees – struggle and suffer.

[1] Sarah O’Connor, ‘Dark Factories: Labour exploitation in Britain’s garment industry’, May 17 2018, Financial Times

[2] Bournville Works Magazine 1910

[3] Mary Agnes Hamilton, Mary Macarthur: A Biographical Sketch, 1925, Leonard Parsons, p 80

[4] Gertrude Tuckwell Collection, TUC Library, London Metropolitan University, file 216m/7.


[6] Jackson’s Oxford Journal, June 22 1907

[7] As above


Some further reading:


Sheila Blackburn (2007) A Fair Day’s Wage for a Fair Day’s Work? Sweated Labour and the Origins of Minimum Wage Legislation in Britain (Aldershot, Ashgate)


Cathy Hunt (2014) The National Federation of Women Workers, 1906-21, Palgrave Macmillan


Richard Mudie-Smith (compiled) (1906) Handbook of The “Daily News” Sweated Industries Exhibition (London, Burt & Sons)


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