Many of the workers slept in the factories, some of them under their machines. They kept the makings of the smallest kind of personal belongings next to them. Some of the women had babies lying in orange crates beneath their legs - they had put old wheels cut in half underneath and used one foot to work the machines, the other to rock the cradles. I found all this incredibly disturbing, yet the workers seemed grateful to have a roof over their heads and something to do. I was amazed at their acceptance of their conditions.
For my part, I had started out as a fashion designer in the early 1980s. My clothes were made in the East End of London. The factories I used weren't sweatshops, but they were about as near as you could get to it. I didn't know what the girls were getting paid, but I'm certain it wasn't very much. The first factory I worked with was a part-funded government scheme, set up because it had been given start-up support, and it was literally a hand-to-mouth existence for it. The business lived from one order to the next. The factories making leather goods looked as if they had not moved on since Dickensian times. But they were family set-ups, mostly run by Indians, and although the conditions weren't great, there was a sense of family pride that seemed to bolster them along.
Fortunately, my clothes were quite distinctive and extreme, and I never produced the sorts of clothes that were made in a factory like the ones I saw in Hong Kong. But after seeing what I did there I went to quite a lot of effort to produce in the UK. In the early 1990s, when I wanted to start producing on a medium scale, I signed a contract with Coats Viyella in Nottingham. Sitting in the canteen there I could feel a real sense that they were employing people, not commodities. The machinists cared about the product. They enjoyed seeing it in magazines, and they were able to take a pride in their work.
Many designers in this country are still not trained to know enough about the manufacturing process. When it comes to looking for the right sort of deal, they often end up having their goods manufactured in Italy and the Far East. Because the designers' parent companies are responsible for this, the designers are protected, and in a sense that is part of the deal.
The most vocal campaigner for what I would call a caring product is Katherine Hamnett. She has always been very impassioned about human rights, but there are other designers who don't really give a damn. They just want the product out there, on time and at the right price. And left to their own devices they will make decisions purely based on the effect it will have on their balance sheet. Having a conscience can be expensive.
I think that part of the solution lies with public opinion. If the person buying the product cares, then everyone else cares. It really is up to the public to put the pressure on. Ethics and consumerism by definition seek different end results, so large companies will have to do more than just print a code of conduct on their promotional material. They will have to take a hard hit on the bottom line, if they are to be truly responsible about how they produce large volumes of clothes.
But even for larger companies, ethical trade is achievable. These firms expect superb quality control on their product, and they should apply the same rigour when it comes to the conditions of those who produce it. If they are going to do this in a genuine and meaningful manner, they will have to take a deliberate cut in profits, and put provision aside to pay the additional cost, just as they might for their legal departments to sue those they deem have ripped them off.
I think most clothing businesses will avoid doing this for as long as possible, but there are fewer and fewer places in the world where they can get away with it. Desperate as many Third World economies are to trade themselves into life, there are dwindling numbers of places where the "white man" can lay down all the conditions.
In the UK there is a manufacturing hole. Small and medium designer labels have few places to manufacture, and larger manufacturers are closing as orders from the mass market go overseas. Meanwhile, we march from one initiative to another without any real sustained drive for action, and without a single government ministry to see it through.
To keep the manufacture of UK products in the UK, factories require not just a vision of how things could be, but an accountable minister, a budget and a realistic timetable. What is needed is a government that doesn't just listen to our problems, but which plays a key part in helping us to get over them. No more meetings and committees - action will do.
Helen Storey was a leading fashion designer between 1984 and 1995. She is a member of the Secretary of State for Education David Blunkett's National Advisory Committee for Creative and Cultural EducationReuse content