Evidence to the commission from the textile workers' union says they fear reprisals if they ask for the pounds 3.60 an hour legal minimum. Most are scared of losing their jobs, and some have suffered physical abuse. "The workers have told us that non-payment of the minimum wage is common practice in every company they know," the National Union of Knitwear, Footwear and Apparel Trades told the commission.
The union is now bringing tribunal cases on behalf of several workers, all of them Asian. The lowest pay it found was about pounds 1.50 per hour. The union says that because small garment factories are usually found in Britain's ethnic minority communities, workers often speak little English and, although they know their rights, they do not always know how to demand them.
One woman who was sacked because she asked her boss for the minimum wage told the union: "Many women are scared, especially those who have worked for the same employer for 10 years or more and have even more to lose. I told my friend to come forward, but she said that because her husband is out of work she cannot risk losing her job."
Union officers took The Independent on a tour of Leicester's garment factories, where 80 per cent of the manufacturing units employ fewer than 20 people.
We saw blocked fire exits, machines without safety guards and workers sewing garments behind padlocked doors.
In a former typewriter factory that contained dozens of small garment units, we were told work stopped for the day when health and safety inspectors were expected. Off each damp, dark stairwell we found groups of workers huddled over antiquated machines amid piles of cloth and debris.
We spoke to workers here and elsewhere, some of whom said they were making goods for big high street stores and who were earning less than pounds 3.60 an hour.
Haroun Khan told us he made jeans and leggings for a well known store at rates as low as pounds 2.50 an hour. During a quiet period this summer he had been laid off without pay.
"There is no guard on my machine and when a needle flies out anything could happen," he said. "I told the boss there was supposed to be a guard. He said he knew what I meant but he didn't do anything. I'm thinking of avoiding factories in the future."
He and several others confirmed that they were paid piece-rate and their bosses simply divided their weekly earnings by pounds 3.60 to come up with a fictional number of working hours for their pay slips. In many cases, no record was kept of what hours they worked.
One worker showed union representatives his "official" payslip, which said he had worked 22 hours in a week at pounds 3.60 an hour. An unofficial payslip handed out alongside it said he had actually worked 52 hours for the money, making his real pay pounds 1.53 per hour.
Many of the factories use homeworkers to finish the garments they make. Manjeet Tara, director of the Leicester Outwork Campaign, took us to meet three women who were sewing labels into tops destined for C&A and Mark One in a 12ft by 10ft extension at the back of a modern semi-detached house.
Mina, who lived in the house and who combined working up to 12 hours per day and seven days a week with looking after her three children, told us she earned pounds 3.60 or more an hour.
She said she was paid 10 pence for a side-seam, 3 pence for a label and from 12 pence for a zip depending on length.
Leicester is a centre for Britain's garment industry, providing branded clothes for chain stores as well as for street markets. Similar conditions exist in clothing factories in London, Birmingham and Lancashire, according to trade unions and community groups. While the bigger factories do pay the minimum wage, the smaller outlets often do not.
The union has taken on Chanda Parmar, who was brought up in Leicester, as a community organiser to make contact with garment workers in the city. "So far we have had about 40 inquiries from people who are not getting the minimum wage," she said. "But from what they are saying they are often speaking on behalf of 100 others."
Names have been changed to protect workers' identities.
The campaign urges retailers to ensure that workers employed by their subcontractors do not suffer through low wages and poor conditions. Instead of moving production elsewhere when failings are revealed, we ask them to draw up codes of conduct and to have them independently monitored.
In addition we call for:
All leading retailers to report annually on their social auditing;
A change in the law to make country-of-origin labelling compulsory;
Steps towards an "ethical trade kitemark" indicating standards of pay and conditions.Reuse content