After a spike in coronavirus cases, Leicester was forced back into lockdown; facing travel restrictions and unable to reopen pubs and restaurants on the 4th July. It is no coincidence that Leicester is also home to 1000 garment factories, some of which are genuine, though some are extremely exploitative and have ignored government Covid-19 instructions. According to a report released by Labour Behind the Label, an organisation which campaigns for workers’ rights in the clothing industry, some Leicester factories have stayed open during lockdown without providing PPE, ignoring social distancing rules, committing furlough fraud and forcing sick staff to work. Around 75-80% of production in Leicester’s factories is fulfilling orders from ‘Boohoo’, and sister companies Pretty Little Thing, Missguided and Nasty Gal. Could the overwhelming demands of these fast fashion brands, worker exploitation and poor conditions in some factories be a contributing factor causing the Leicester lockdown?
With shops closed during lockdown, online shopping has boomed and Boohoo has stated that it is expecting a growth of 25% overall in 2020/21 after an increase in sales of around 44% in the first quarter of the year. Recently, it was reported that CEO, John Lyttle is set to receive a £1,000,000 pay-out, and salary increases from 18–30% for other senior executives. However, the picture is very different for garment workers. A study in 2015, commissioned by the Ethical Trading Initiative showed that most workers were paid significantly below the National Minimum Wage rate of then £6.50. According to this research only about 20% were paid close to the National Minimum Wage. The sources in the research revealed that the local average wage rate in the industry was around £3 per hour and those without the right to stay in the UK were sometimes earning only £1 per hour. Industry sources state that it is impossible to produce the units/garments requested by Boohoo for the product price and pay workers the national minimum wage.
Brands like Boohoo prey on the ethnicity of its garment workers to exploit them for cheap labour. In Leicester, it is estimated that most garment workers are from minority ethnic groups; as around 33.6% were born outside the UK (e.g. from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalis and increasingly Eastern Europeans). Their migrant status is weaponised against them, as they are forced into accepting poor working conditions and are too afraid to challenge their illegally low pay for fear they will lose their job or face deportation. The lack of documented resident status or entitlement to work means that many workers are willing to accept poor conditions in exchange for employment, without formal contracts or minimum wages. Language barriers also prevent workers from speaking out against their exploitation, and from reading the coronavirus warning signs, like ‘stay alert’ and ‘keep 2 meters apart’, for example. With the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME people, factory work is particularly dangerous.
Fear of being deported and losing their jobs has meant that garment workers have continued to work despite testing positive for coronavirus or displaying symptoms. There have been reports of factory bosses ignoring government guidance, telling their employees to come to work despite being sick and warning them not to tell anyone that they have contracted coronavirus. Factories have stayed open and sick employees have continued to work because of the tremendous pressure workers are under to fulfil orders from Boohoo. The fast fashion model used by Boohoo is characterised by small-batch orders with a fast turnaround. This approach encourages unauthorised subcontracting in order to meet low prices, ensure fast production, exploit workers and fail to comply with proper working conditions and standards.
In terms of standards of the factories, Thulsi Narayanasamy, a labour rights researcher at the Business and Human Rights Centre (BHRC), described squalid conditions with boarded windows, cramped workers and blocked fire escapes in Leicester garment factories. She said: “I’ve been inside garment factories in Bangladesh, China and Sri Lanka, and I can honestly say that what I saw in the middle of the UK was worse than anything I’ve witnessed overseas”.
The impact of the Leicester garment industry may be a very relevant factor contributing to the renewed lockdown in the city. This crisis not only reflects a problem in Leicester but also in the government and in the fast fashion industry, who allow the exploitation of garment workers. Both the government and the fashion industry are aware of the treatment of garment workers and the conditions in the factories, yet have failed to take action. Instead of giving employers the responsibility to enforce Covid-19 guidelines in the workplace, the government should have taken matters into their own hands and recognised that some factory employers cannot even enforce basic working conditions in normal circumstances. As for Boohoo, in the past year alone Labour Behind the Label have called on Boohoo to commit to paying their workers a living wage, to sign the transparency pledge and to protect their workers during Covid-19. Despite some engagement with Boohoo on these topics, the company failed to take meaningful action. With the government and the fashion industry failing to take action, consumers must recognise their power to make personal choices about where to spend money.