Losing your rag at Fashion Week

One warehouse in Canning Town is home to a surprising beneficiary of Britain’s high-fashion credentials.

You wouldn’t expect an industrial park in the East End of London to have much to do with London Fashion Week, but one warehouse in Canning Town is home to a surprising beneficiary of Britain’s high-fashion credentials. Lawrence M Barry & Co (LMB) is one of just two London companies that still hand-sorts second-hand clothes – mostly from council recycling bins or the rejects from charity shops – for resale in Africa and eastern Europe.

In the five years to 2012, the price of one tonne of second-hand clothes almost tripled, from £220 to roughly £650, according to the trade publication letsrecycle.com, and each year the UK sells about 378,000 tonnes of used clothes abroad. At market stalls in Mombasa or in shops in Warsaw, customers are willing to pay a premium of as much as 30 per cent for British garments.

While the fashion press studies the catwalks in central London to divine next season’s trends, LMB has its own in-house fashion rules and seasonal fads. The most valued trousers across Africa have a pleat down the middle and turned-up bottoms, which is a problem, because “no one wears turn-ups these days”, says LMB’s business development manager, Ross Barry.

Zambians love corduroy trousers, which are also hard to find. In the past few years, Barry has started exporting ladies’ high heels, “because Africa’s changing – before, women just worried about their heels getting stuck in the mud”. And there has been an unlikely increase in demand for ski jackets, after some countries made it illegal to drive a motorbike without a jacket. Barry walks me around LMB’s factory floor, where “sorters” in high-visibility jackets rifle through piles of clothing, throwing some items down yellow chutes and others into big metal cages labelled “Children’s Winter” or “Silk Blouses”. The highest-quality 5 per cent of clothes will go to eastern Europe, 45 per cent will go to Africa and the lowest-grade 50 per cent will be recycled or turned into industrial rags.

A kilo of clothes destined for eastern Europe can be sold for £2 to £3, while a kilo of clothes heading for Africa will sell for half as much. The sorters are paid the minimum wage, plus a bonus depending on their performance, and the fastest sorters can sort through two tonnes of clothes – about a lorry-full – in one shift.

In some ways, LMB is just the kind of old-fashioned British firm that policymakers romanticise and that is slowly being undercut by nimbler multinationals. It is a family business, as are most other companies in the rag trade. “My dad always says it’s because no one grows up thinking, ‘I want to be a rag man,’” jokes Barry, who has a law degree and worked in the oil industry before joining his father in the business. Sorting clothes may be tough, menial work, but staff turnover is low. The average employee has worked here for nine years and LMB runs a project to employ ex-prisoners.

A lot has changed since Barry’s father, Lawrence, moved into the clothes trade in the mid-1980s, initially handing out flyers at Heathrow Airport to find potential buyers and shippers. The market has expanded, but that has made it tougher, too. Councils are charging more for second-hand clothes and rising labour costs have forced many to outsource their sorting to eastern Europe. Barry says six UK rag firms went out of business last year and eight have folded this year.

 

Piles of denim clothing. Image: Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.