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British academic warns the UK could have own Rana Plaza disaster

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A modern slavery researcher has warned that with a rising number of retailers producing clothes locally in the United Kingdom, the country must take action to avoid exploitation and tragedy.

Leicester, England, has seen a number of online clothing companies move their production to local factories, where Dr. Amy Benstead of the University of Manchester says workers are at risk of exploitation.

The high degree of subcontracting in the clothing industry means that there is little oversight of labor conditions in the factories, which Dr. Benstead argued are often dangerous.

The UK’s factories are often “old and decrepit”, raising the risk of the country experiencing a disaster on the scale of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza tragedy according to Dr. Benstead.

Furthermore, many factory workers are migrants whose vulnerable position in the UK leaves them particularly at risk of exploitation.

Dr. Benstead argued that because clothing companies themselves have not been able to mount effective interventions, it is up to the government to increase legislation to tackle labor abuses in the industry.

The Lancashire Post reports:

“There are lots of units in Leicester and subcontracting is rife everywhere, so there is a real lack of visibility. How do you regulate it?

“I don’t think consumers are as aware of human exploitation as they are of the environmental side. And it’s the people who suffer.” […]

“People should be more inquisitive about who’s making their clothes. When you hear of workforce exploitation, the victims tend to be Asian or Eastern European. Often people are promised a better life in the UK,” Amy said.

“There’s also an aging British workforce and young people don’t necessarily want to work in factories, so we rely on migrants. Apprenticeships need more promotion. We need to show that factory work is a good, skilled job.”

The clothing industry has long been plagued by allegations of labor exploitation, particularly by Western multinationals that have exported parts of their supply chains to countries like Bangladesh.

The Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, which contained several clothing factories, collapsed in 2013 in the deadliest structural failure in modern human history. Over 1,000 people lost their lives.

Last month, Freedom United drew attention to labor exploitation in Bangladesh by co-hosting a screening of Rubaiyat Hussain’s new docudrama Made in Bangaladesh, which follows a group of women fighting to unionize at a clothing factory.

Dr. Benstead’s words serve as an important reminder that Western countries like the UK cannot be complacent about similar labor abuses in their own backyard.

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