Sweatshop plight of rag trade staff paid pennies.
By NEIL CONNOR
Sweatshops where staff are forced to work long hours in appalling conditions for little more than a pittance are making a comeback in Midland clothing factories, union leaders and industry sources claimed today.
Pressure to compete with cheap imports to produce fashionable clothes at bargain basement prices is forcing some manufacturers to cut corners.
The National Union of Knitwear, Footwear and Apparel Trades, warns that workers are being exploited and are being forced to work in poor conditions for pay well below the minimum wage.
'Woman who become pregnant are not able to get their maternity leave and workers can be hired and fired at the turn of a head,' said a union spokesman.
Mr Baz Morris, deputy general secretary of the union, said: 'Last year, when the minimum wage came in, we found evidence of employers fiddling wage slips so it looked as if the worker was getting the minimum wage. We have found examples of as little as pounds 1 an hour being paid, and examples of pounds 2/pounds 2.50 are commonplace.
'So are fiddles by the employers who alter pay slips so it appears workers are getting pounds 3.60 (the minimum wage).'
Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry backed the warning, saying it understood the need for industry competition but such cost-cutting measures were unacceptable.
'We would not want any local employer to be exploiting any of their workers and it is unfortunate that in some areas this occurs,' said BCCI chief spokesperson, Mr John Lamb.
'We would not support any business where people are working in unacceptable and dangerous conditions. This should not have to happen in this day and age.'
The extent of the problem has been highlighted by a consumer affairs programme which sent an undercover researcher into a clothing factory in the Midlands.
The researcher found there were no machine guards, no visible workplace insurance certificates, people were allowed to eat among the machines and had to bring their own bottled water to drink.
She was set to work sewing straps on to tops, and was told she would be paid 12p per top. To earn the minimum wage she would have to produce 30 tops an hour - a target she did not reach.
Another textile worker claimed she was padlocked into the factory, which had no exits.
The re-emergence of sweatshops is also affecting reputable manufacturers who find it hard to compete.
The Leicester-based Richard Roberts Group, which pays above the minimum wage, is feeling the pressure, having just lost a pounds 30 million contract to supply M&S.
Company chairman Mr Andrew Briers said: 'We are trying to sell on design flexibility and quality that you would expect from a British manufacturer.
'But we are finding that we cannot compete with the sweatshops on cost.
'I think it is morally reprehensible for retailers to sell goods in sweatshops - be it in Birmingham or in Bangladesh.
'People have a right to expect garments with a made in Britain label to have been made to certain conditions. Retailers should not try to con the public.