Tuesday, 15 March 2022

Focus on Dominique Muller - Policy Director for Labour Behind The Label


The work of Dominique and her ‘small but mighty’ team at Labour Behind the Label support the garment workers who make your clothes here in the UK and then globally with the work they do with     The Clean Clothes Campaign They take their voice from the workers, they campaign for them and call out injustices by naming and shaming brands but they also liaise with the brands to bring about change. We talk about their work on the real living wage or actually securing a minimum wage in places where this doesn’t exist, human rights, isolating labour costs, legislation, raising the voices of women within unions and so much more. Read on as Dominique shares with us the vital work they do.




Dv: Where did you grow up Dominique?


DM: In Amersham, at the end of the Metropolitan line, a little town in Buckinghamshire. My mother was French and English my father, Swiss German which explains the mix of my names. After school I lived in London, Prague, Hong Kong, France and Holland. I lived out of the UK for 15 years and now live in York.


Dv: Your choice of university degrees and the journey you've been on, has very much centred around politics, law justice and human rights, what moved you in this direction and inspired you to help?


DM: My mother’s opinion that ‘you are put on this earth to make it better’, was very influential and if I see someone struggling it affects me emotionally. When I was about 14 or 15 I wanted to be a benevolent dictator, I thought that if I could get it right and could push all the bad people out of the country things would be better. That’s when I joined the young communists, it took me a while to realise things weren’t quite so clear cut, that there's a lot more context. Human rights and justice, I'm not sure quite why, a lot of empathy really, my daughter is the same.


Dv: Did you go to University in China?


DM: I did, in those days it was more common, it was a four year course, Politics in East Asia with a year in China, that was my first degree and I fell in love with China. It was changing, 1987 to 88, the people were lovely, everyone was friendly, everything was fresh and new. Then while I was doing my finals the Tiananmen crackdown happened. After University I felt I hadn't finished with China, so I went back and spent a year researching juvenile delinquency. There were and still are, laws regulating so called hooliganism, you could be put in a juvenile detention centre for things like talking loudly in cinemas, spitting watermelon seeds, being a juvenile, being loud and obnoxious. If you're female you could be detained for having a boyfriend, or for having sex. But they were so lovely and so tame I thought that I would love to know more, and at the same time see a balance in the law. On one hand it's very totalitarian and repressive, but on the other, there was a belief in the reformation of someone’s character. Now, I would consider it to be much more like brainwashing, but at the time it didn’t seem that way. The social workers, really genuinely, thought they were altering someone. In the West oftentimes, kids and adults are just put in prison which is punitive and not reformative. I went back one more time and did six months of a PhD in China on human rights. This time it was more difficult, no one wanted to talk about human rights, the political climate had changed. Also I was older and it was more risky, because this time I was asking better questions than before. 



Dv: Tell us about Labour Behind the Label and The Clean Clothes Campaign, how are you linked? Was it because of The Clean Clothes Campaign you lived in Amsterdam?


DM: When I was working in Hong Kong I worked through with The Clean Clothes Campaign on their 2008 Beijing Olympic campaign, we collaborated with a campaign around workers producing sportswear and kept in touch, later moving to Amsterdam to take up a job there. Then eventually moving back to the UK to work with Labour Behind the Label.

Labour Behind the Label was set up in Norwich about 20 years ago and it's the only UK body focused solely on garment workers. We call ourselves small but mighty, there are six of us at the moment and we do a lot of campaigning work, a lot of naming and shaming, but we also do a lot of brand liaison and advocacy. We reach out to brands about specific cases, which are called urgent appeals. That's when our partners overseas will contact us and say ‘this is happening in our factory can you help?’ In many cases we do this work behind the scenes and don’t need to go public unless the brands refuse to remediate the abuses. We also do policy work and work a lot on that in the UK.


We are an independent organisation, but also work as The Clean Clothes Coalition in the UK. Europe has a lot of well established coalitions with newer coalitions in places like Romania, Croatia in Eastern Europe and regional coalitions predominantly in Asia.

On top of those hubs, we have partners and members of the coalitions, mainly in Asia but we have some in in Africa, North Africa, South Africa, Latin America etc.

Then there are global partners who are big global organisations who work on worker rights.


It's very much a network, this means we were using zoom way before lockdown.

Our work is with lots of different people in lots of different countries.

The key is that we take our voice from the workers. We don't claim to represent them, we can't, it's their unions and their groups that do that. The work we do comes from the grassroots up and it's very flexible. They create the policies and bring us the issues.


Dv: Do they feel it’s easier to speak with you than their unions?


DM: It depends, our partners and members are unions, well established ones, but also smaller unions in lots of different countries, plus NGOs and women's groups. The garment industry is made up of a lot of women who live and work in a lot of countries where women are not necessarily treated equally. We know there are a lot of traditional unions that don't always represent women well and that won't always give them a voice. We are very clear that they are all equal. For example, we have done work that focused on developing women's leadership in the union movement and in factory representation. Before the pandemic we had global meetings where women leaders come together, from everywhere, where a woman from Honduras, who is a trade unionist could be speaking to a woman from Thailand. We look at how they can develop their confidence and their skills and how we can work on unions that might be more hesitant to let them in or let them talk.


Dv: Giving them a voice. That must be that must be very powerful.


DM: It’s amazing, some of the women are so inspiring and some people like Kalpona Akter in Bangladesh, she's amazing, she's always so cheerful and yet I know she sits in her office or goes out to factories and meets women that are in terrible situations and she keeps on fighting. Then there are 18 year old women coming up through the ranks that are so full of energy it's great.


Dv: It must have been really difficult for them, knowing now what happened during the pandemic when the brands pulled their orders leaving all the people empty handed. Suddenly they had no money, how do you feed your family? how do you feed your children? what happens in that void?


DM: It was such a huge shock, but it had been creeping up, during the three waves. The first wave when China shutdown, meant a lot of orders went to other places which created a lot of abuse in terms of overtime, being forced to make up for China. Then came the lockdown in Europe where all the orders disappeared. During the lockdowns in Asia some factories were still working and the women were at greater risk of getting Covid and still are. If a factory shutdown there was no income. It really highlighted that for all the fine words of the last two decades, the brands were quite happy to forget everything to protect their profits. When you look now, obviously there have been some failures on the high street like Arcadia and Debenhams, but they were also being bled dry by multimillionaire owners. All the others are presenting nice tidy profits, or have increased massively, with huge profits.



Dv: Is there a way of keeping the women safe if they're whistle blowing?


DM: It's very different in different countries and factories. The urgent appeal area, it's a very good system, we have partners who will come to us with a case, we will assess it and work out which brands are involved, it might be say H&M, Next or Aldi for example, we then speak to the German CCC (Clean Clothes Coalition) the Norwegians and the UK and we will form a case group with the partner. However, over Covid the number of cases mushroomed, we have had hundreds and hundreds and we can't deal with them all altogether. To cope with the increase we created country groups. Many of the issues are about wages, then the next biggest issue is dismissal and using Covid as an excuse to get rid of unions. In places where the workers are speaking out and are organising, the owners will say we don’t have any more orders, we don't have money, we're going to close this factory, then they simply move it somewhere else, where there are fresh workers desperate for work and no unions. We try and protect workers by pushing the brands to talk to the management by naming and shaming, by campaigning and by direct work with embassies, global unions, in any way we can.


One of the things that's been really inspiring is the amount of self-organising in terms of the unions and the women's groups, developing food networks. They're distributing cooking oil and flour to all the families in the garment working areas. It doesn't matter who you work for, if you have a family whose affected you get it, that support has been going on the whole time.


We are not a fundraising, project based organisation, we support the workers with the brands, with the local governments, pushing back where we see the need, for example in India, new laws introduced have damaged and set back the Labour Laws, so we push back against things like that. It's hard work and there's always more to be done.


A lot of work we have done is on the living wage and now unfortunately we are in a situation where we're asking for workers to be paid the minimum, because they're not even getting that, or their bonuses. On one level that's what we're doing now, but strategically we're also developing a plan where we can keep pushing for the living wage.


Dv: Do you think it’s difficult because of self regulation in the fashion industry? Would legislation that protects workers here and abroad work? What are the chances of that happening?


DM: If you look at some of the reports you can see that brands are saying that they want legislation. That wouldn't have happened five years ago, but they know they must ask for reputational risk management. That and the growth of possible court cases. They are also asking for a level playing field, that's the big thing for some brands, ‘we want a level playing field, because we're the good guys’. 


There is a movement towards mandatory human rights due diligence and proper legislation. I think it’s moving in the EU, but this UK government is failing in one of the most basic things and that is, as a consumer we all have to buy clothes, every single one of us. If you're buying new, wherever you buy from the High Street, or Primark or anywhere else, you have to think, has this been made by an 18 year old woman in a factory earning a minimum wage? We shouldn't have to make that choice, with legislation the government could enable us to have a free conscience. That way we can say, everything in the UK is clean, but it isn't, so every day we are forced to make those choices. 


The UK government has a hands off approach to legislation yet brands are calling out for more and enforcement agencies in the UK are failing miserably because they are under resourced. Which means what little law the UK has is not being upheld. We have the modern slavery act which has no teeth, even the government says ‘well you know consumer pressure at the end of the day is a sanction’. But you can't put that on consumers, how dare they fail that as a government.


Dv: What are the trade unions in this country (UK) for garment workers?


DM: There's the TUC, which is the Confederation and then the key ones Community, Unite, GMB, Bakers Union plus more for those working in logistics and warehousing.


Dv: Do you have to be a British citizen to be a member of the union?


DM: No, the TUC and other unions are very clear that they will protect workers regardless of immigration status and regardless of contract. We have big issues, in Leicester in the UK, we are working with several different stakeholders including brands and enforcement bodies to develop a binding agreement. That has come out of the exposé we did on Boohoo in the summer of 2020.


You can read it here.


Dv: Is Leicester the biggest producer of garments in the UK?


DM: It's the biggest hub, there is also Manchester, Birmingham, London and some in Lancashire. But Leicester has the biggest concentration, they estimate around 10,000 plus workers the majority of whom are female.

After our exposé brands that have never talked to me before or didn't like talking to me, came and said this is great, we want to do something. That was partly because a lot of brands have pulled out of Leicester because they kept being exposed.


Dv: But that leaves a void for Boohoo to happen.


DM: Exactly, which is that's why they swooped in, and with no transparency whatsoever it got worse and worse. It’s not only Boohoo, they are the biggest player, but there are lots of other e-retailers with websites that I don't know of, but my daughter, whose 16 has heard of, that cater to that age group. So we are working on an enforceable binding agreement that would bring unions, brands and manufacturers together, that would enable union access and that would support workers in the community. It would also hold up standards on fair pricing, isolation of labour costs, purchasing practises like regular contracts and at the same time it also tries to bring in enforcement agencies. What we've seen is that many agencies undertake raids with the immigration agency. That means, automatically workers don't want to talk to them because they are scared and quite rightly. They feel if they speak out then they might be deported, or their friend might be. Since a new taskforce was set up I think there's been one arrest so far and up until a few months ago it was the only action taken out of all the raids that happened. The person arrested was a worker who was detained and charged with immigration offences. That's the only criminal prosecution which is appalling and sends the message that the government does not care. There’s a really low prosecution of labour rights enforcement, the narrative is that the situation is caused by criminal suppliers or dodgy owners of factories and it isn't the full story at all. It's a whole endemic set of circumstances, much of it pushed by low prices paid by brands and the overall lack of government oversight and care for workers.  


Dv: Is this in line with the government sending Levison in to check on Boohoo?


DM: Boohoo are spending their own money on Alison Levison to do that review. Now they have Levison who sends out regular updates. Boohoo are making slow progress, but they are starting from a point where other brands were 20 years ago. People have been publishing their supply chain for years and years. Boohoo have only just published their supply list. In the UK it's very small, it doesn't quite add up to their claim that they haven't reduced sourcing in Leicester. We know that they have massively increased production in places like Pakistan and Morocco and information from all those factories is still unknown. £3 a week was commonplace in Leicester for many years and we are still seeing endemic underpayment of the minimum wage and holiday pay is almost unknown still!



Dv: You mentioned isolation of labour costs, can you explain what that means?


DM: Isolating labour costs – or ringfencing wage costs helps to make sure that any prices agreed will protect the cost of wages so brands do not try to reduce the prices downwards. Brands and especially fast fashion brands keep pushing prices lower and lower forcing suppliers to cut costs if they want the orders and the work. Brands want suppliers to produce cheap clothes for minimal costs. This isn’t sustainable or fair. We have heard anecdotally; a brand will bring lots of suppliers in to a room and say ‘we want a supplier who can make this for £3.00’ someone will say ‘I can do it for £2.50’ the brand will say ‘okay here’s the order’. The supplier needs the money. The profit value in the supply chain, is so big at the top and so small at the bottom. Margins for retailers can be around 40-60% and for suppliers it’s as low as 5%. This means that some suppliers, in order to make money, (and some of them are very rich, the really criminally exploitive ones), will supplement profits by tax fraud or VAT fraud. In the UK one example is to have an official pay slip which says 20 hours at the minimum wage, that goes through the books, but the worker then has to pay back the extra in cash, to reduce their wages to £3, £4 or £5 an hour.


Dv: That must be heart breaking for the worker.


DM: I know it sounds awful - at the moment the situation in Leicester is pretty tough.


Dv: If somebody is having to work like that and are on such low wages do they then get government support to live?


DM: Well that's the other thing which is a problem with the enforcement bodies. I'll answer this in two parts. Sometimes the supplier coerces the worker into benefit fraud. They will say ‘I can give you 14 hours so it's part time, at £4 an hour which is better than £3 and you can claim benefit.’ Sometimes suppliers help the workers fill out the forms as many don’t have good enough English to do this. In this way – the employers are coercing workers into criminal behaviour thus making them even less likely to whistle blow.


Dv: Of course this is only for people who are legally here.


DM: Yes exactly, the people who don't have proper legal status, they are totally vulnerable, and one of the things that we try to raise in our work with the labour market enforcement bodies. They have said ‘well we've also got to crackdown on benefit fraud’. But we are very clear that we're not here to further our own agenda, or for you to get your targets. We are here to support the workers. It’s not being supportive if you go after them for benefit fraud. They don’t necessarily want to claim benefit, they would rather have a decent living wage and a decent job.

Isolating labour costs, creates a transparent costing mechanism, the fabric, the overheads like lighting etc are separated out then you have the wages, the pensions and the VAT so it's all clear and that should create a more equal relationship between the supplier and the brand. Which means the brand can't say, ‘well the supplier said that they could make a garment for £1.50’ _ because we all know that's impossible. You need to ring fence that labour cost. It makes it safe and what we want to see is that in the UK we move towards the real living wage and not the minimum wage which is erroneously called the national living wage.


Dv: I hate it.


DM: I know, I know, but it's such a good marketing tool, ‘but why don't we call the minimum wage the living wage that would work’, because it's not the living wage, it's the minimum wage.

In so many countries the minimum wage has become the ceiling wage which leaves people struggling to pay the rent, buy food and pay for all the other things. This is not a living wage, if you can't live on it, it's not living.


Dv: It feels like a difficult balancing act to protect the rights of the workers. But what’s not talked about enough are the skills garment workers have and our need for them.

The obvious way forward would be to lift garment working up as a as a career path, as something for people to aspire to when they finish school. But the skill is not valued or even taught anymore so why would you. We have become reliant on a migrant work force who are skilled yet are vilified, mistreated and live in fear.


DM: Brexit hasn't helped with the uncertainty for EU Nationals. There are a lot of Bulgarian workers, other Eastern Europeans and obviously a lot of Asian workers.

Kate at Make it British, wants to see a thriving British industry, but at the moment Leicester is competing with Bangladesh and Pakistan and the garments often made in the UK are really simple like tube dresses where only the top and the bottom are stitched. There is some skill, and they have to be fast, but in terms of old fashioned skills they are not there, this is because of the pressure from fast fashion brands to, reduce skills and keep costs down.

I have seen some invoices and they clearly show that the prices paid and offered in the UK are less than would have been paid in Pakistan, even including air freight.

It’s shocking, but there is such a great opportunity to create better clothes, more sustainably, more ethically and with climate change things should be made close by. With fast fashion you want things made close by so you can get items out fast. There are so many positive things about having things made in England and yet it's almost like Leicester and the whole garment industry there is being exploited as a sweatshop, within a supposedly first world, first class country.



Dv: I've read somewhere that only 20% of garment workers in the UK are being paid properly is that correct?


DM: Possibly because if you think 80% of those are women, I would think so. The most common missed payment is holiday pay, this is happening increasingly, especially with some migrants, but also with vulnerable women who aren't used to working in formal 9 to 5 full time jobs, there are so many instances where they don't even know that they are entitled to holiday pay. They say ‘but I work part time’ but you should still get holiday pay, you're still allowed a holiday. The denial of holiday pay is so common. Then there is the denial of pensions and if you're on a low wage that’s kept artificially low for benefits, then you're not contributing more to pensions and so it adds up to a lifetime of poverty or possible poverty.


Dv: Because of this underpayment and because so many women work in garment production Covid impacted them more, because they didn't stop working.


DM: Together with the TUC we did a press release. The ONS (Office for National Statistics) put out aggregated figures at the end of January 2021, very quietly that show the occupations most at risk of Covid and within that garment work and female garment workers were statistically three times more likely to die of Covid. The figures included nurses and teachers, it’s statistically a small group because they are a small category, but the number of deaths from those factories were 3 times higher.


Dv: So they are literally dying to make our clothes.


DM: In overcrowded factories, with very little regulation from the health and safety executive. Boris Johnson said inspections were going on last spring, they weren't. The agency said they weren't. The Covid guidelines were guidelines only, so these workers were literally forced to work in unsafe conditions. In Sir Lanka for example there was a massive wave of infections spread by the garment industry, because workers are forced into crowded factories and onto crowded transport. The Sir Lankan government has said that in Sir Lanka there needs to be official tripartite committees looking after Covid guidelines and manufacturers are ignoring this. We pushed for brands to step in but it’s a struggle. And again, this is where UK or global legislation would help, then it would impact what's happening to people abroad too. Brands would be held responsible and factories would have to fall in line with the laws, so law really is key.  From the other end we need unions in the factory that can push - so many brands talk about respect for freedom of association, but in reality on the ground they don’t apply it. 



Dv: The constant need for growth within the fashion industry means we're overproducing and throwing things away, as we know things are being made that don't even make it to the shop floor that go straight from the factory to landfill. Which is awful for planet and people. Do you see a way to bring balance in this?


DM: It's such a big question. I think it's got to a point where people are much more aware of the issues around the lack of sustainability, climate change, the impact of how much water is used, pollution, airfreights, all those £2 bikinis being flown in from Pakistan, it's not sustainable. I think, and possibly this is where legislation comes in again, because you have a lot of brands that call themselves ethical, who say a lot about the planet, but nothing about the people. So we're always calling out to ethical brands and telling them, you have got to talk about the people, it is not only about the planet. Your communication and work must be addressed in a very holistic way, because it's livelihoods, its economic development, it's the planet, its resources.

There are laws in some countries around mend and repair, where you can't produce certain electronic goods that are not repairable. It should be the same with clothes, you can't produce something that will fall apart after five washes or produce something unless you have a plan for dealing with it as waste. At the moment, used or throwaway clothes are packed up and given to Africa which decimates their own domestic garment industry and their traditional crafts and that is not sustainable or ethical. Something we want to see coming out of this pandemic, is the idea that another world is possible. The pandemic has given us the opportunity to really reset and think about the future. We have to capture this moment before we're all forced back to normal. Relying on us all to go shopping to keep the economy going is not sustainable either.  


My colleague is producing a film, looking at how another world is possible. We're also working on this within the CCC (Clean Clothes Coalition) network, the CCC has something called wigs, which is a working international group, we have them on different topics, where we all come together as a global network. One of the issues we're looking at is what’s called ‘A Just Transition’. Looking towards better, better for the planet, and better for the people, which means a radical shift away from intensive labour, low cost labour exploitation, consumption, overproduction, it's a work in progress.


 Dv: You have a fashion tracker is that part of a project within the clean clothes network?


DM: Yes, we researched over 100 brands and completed 4/500 worker interviews in many different countries. Part of the research looks at what brands are saying on living wage and then seeing what’s actually happening in the factory and in the fashion sector. The Fashion Tracker is the result of that. It was launched relatively recently and is ongoing. We will get people in factories to upload information.


Dv: Will they be allowed to?


DM: They won’t be allowed to in the factory, we are hoping the local unions will be able to action that. Then we can see if, say Next say they have a commitment to the living wage, but at the same time don't have a benchmark or a costing of what that is. Or they've got a commitment to a living wage, but they don't have a plan and that's useless. Either way we can then find out in the factories if 0% of their workers are being paid a living wage. Indeed very few brands pay their workers a living wage, but 99% of brands have a title saying living wage on their websites. Other plans for the CCC, in May 2021 we had a resolution at H&Ms AGM, (we had one in 2020 too, which was rejected,) we are asking for profits to go directly to pay wages and for information on the wages paid. We are also planning to do this with other large high street brands.


Dv: We want to know that not all factory owners are bad people.


Do: Absolutely they are not. For example BetterBuying.org do surveys of producers and produce research which looks at how manufacturers feel. They show the percentage of suppliers in Bangladesh for example who have payment terms of over 90 days and the percentage of suppliers that don't know when they may or may not get an order. You can see that the suppliers are right in the middle and that they are being really used by the brands who all hold the economic power.


Reading List

Labour Behind the Label


Act Now

The Clean Clothes Campaign















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