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Minimum wage Wednesday, 31 March, 1999, 20:54 GMT 21:54 UK
Will the sweatshops pay?
30,000 people in London make their livelihood in sweatshops
30,000 people in London make their livelihood in sweatshops
By Newsroom South East Reporter, Conor Tiernan

A national minimum wage is being introduced, but will it change what happens for thousands of people working behind the factory walls and windows of the fashion industry in the East End?

There it is anything but glamorous, such places are better known by everyone in the industry as sweatshops.

It may be 1999, but the conditions inside many of the clothing factories bear more resemblance to those of Victorian times.

We secretly filmed one factory and Sarah Ford from the British Safety Council said the film showed that the factory was generally very unsafe: "The work is very repetitive, it is putting a strain on the upper limbs, the chairs are not providing adequate support and the machinery is giving a risk of cuts."

The owner of the factory in question declined to be interviewed.

Everyone involved lives in fear. Employers are afraid of losing precious contracts from high street retailers, and workers fear losing their jobs, which are ever harder to come by.

For that reason, one factory worker would only speak to us anonymously. He came from Turkey in 1995 and now works as a finisher, cleaning cotton from garments for 2.50 an hour. He outlined the misery of his factory life:

"The air does not have ventilation so it is dusty, and most of the factories do not have any facilities for heating, so no central heating, and that is why in general we are very cold in winter and very hot in summer time."

So how does a person survive in London on around 2 an hour?

"They don't" said Bharti Patel of the Low Pay Unit. "2 an hour is not a living wage. Many will find themselves forced to claim state benefits to top up their low wages and this will only trap them into poverty."

There are almost one and a half thousand registered clothing companies in London, located mainly in Hackney, Stoke Newington and Tottenham, and a similar number are thought to be unregistered. In all, around 30,000 people make what little livelihood they have in sweatshops.

A whole host of organisations pound the pavements daily, trying to ensure that the minimum wage establishes some order within the chaos, but meetings with the employers do not herald success.

"They have no intention of applying the national minimum wage." Bill Hodge of the Transport and General Workers Union (T&GWU) was unsurprised coming out of one such meeting.

"It's quite common in this sector" he said. But he won't allow rogue employers to get away with it: "It's going to be our intention to pursue employers of this nature."

For many sweatshops, their existence is an exercise in avoiding authority and regulation. When challenged, they simply shut down and open up elsewhere in a few months time. The Government is promising strict enforcement, but the people on the ground have grave doubts about the theory becoming reality.

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