There are few politicians with a bad word to say about “reshoring” – the return of the jobs, particularly manufacturing jobs, that left the UK and other advanced economies in vast swathes as globalisation gave companies access to cheaper workers abroad. In 2014, the Conservative MP Mark Pawsey told the House of Commons that reshoring could create 200,000 jobs over a decade; Vince Cable, then the business secretary, warmly agreed. “The British textile industry,” he enthused, “almost disappeared years ago.
A significant amount of reshoring is taking place because companies want to be close to the market and regard the business environment as attractive.” However, investigations by Channel 4’s Dispatches – the first of which took place in 2010 – and a 2015 study by the University of Leicester outlined exactly what made the business environment in Leicester, a city that was once home to some of the largest clothing factories in Europe, so attractive to the clothing industry once more. The answer was not pretty. An unregulated and exploitative network of “dark factories” had arisen in the dilapidated buildings of the city’s garment district, paying workers around half the minimum wage to produce clothing as quickly as possible to meet the demands of Britain’s online “fast fashion” retailers.
Dark factories are a disaster not only for the people who work in them but for the wider economy, as responsible manufacturers lose their competitive edge against those who have simply imported the worker exploitation of other nations. More positive attempts to bring back manufacturing to Britain, such as the new Clarks shoe factory that was announced – amid much political backslapping – in Somerset in 2017, have been lauded by government but not supported. In January, it was announced that the Clarks factory would close.
The UK has perhaps the best claim of any country to have invented industrial production. It should be the UK, then, that has the best memory for the human and environmental cost of making things in the wrong way. In a time of approaching economic turbulence, this country must now choose between bringing back the old days, as has already happened in Leicester, or creating a future in which industries and their workers are regulated and protected.
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