After this crisis, Leicester must no longer be known as ‘the sweatshop of Europe’

Claudia Webbe

The existence of sweatshops fuelling the ‘fast fashion’ industry has recently been brought to light again by a flurry of reports concerning the terrible and illegal treatment of many workers in the garment industry in Leicester.

Leicester has one of the largest numbers of garment workers in the UK. At the last count, there were an estimated 1,500 garment manufacturing businesses in the city employing around 10,000 people, the majority of whom are women from African, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

These sweatshops under-report hours, which means their books look as if they employ someone for 15 hours at a legal wage when they actually employ them for 40 hours at much lower rates. A 2019 study by HMRC found that, over a six-year period, a quarter of all UK textile factories caught failing to pay the minimum wage were based in Leicester, with some textile factories reportedly offering less than £3.50 an hour.

Factory overcrowding is also commonplace, and with a lack of personal, protective equipment has undoubtedly contributed to the Covid-19 outbreak in the area – a direct result of unscrupulous employers not meeting any legal obligations in the pursuit of ‘fast fashion’.

Many of these garment factories are key parts of the supply chains of well-known brands. To give one example, a report last month by the labour rights organisation, Labour Behind the Label entitled ‘Boohoo & Covid-19: The people behind the profits’ found “emerging evidence indicates that conditions in Leicester’s factories, primarily producing for Boohoo, are putting workers at risk of Covid-19 infections and fatalities”.

Despite these ongoing revelations, the Conservative government continues to show that they will always put the interests of private profit ahead of working people, through complete denial of its role in the existence of abusive workplace practices. At Prime Minister’s Question Time on July 8th, Boris Johnson sought to shirk responsibility for the exploitation of workers in Leicester’s garment industry and direct blame towards the local City Mayor and Labour-run city.

But the reality is that his government has known about this abuse of workers for years, and rejected the warnings and recommendations of a 2019 environmental audit committee report into this issue and before that the 2017 report Human Rights and Business: Promoting responsibility and ensuring accountability.

In one of a number of warnings that have been proven correct, the environmental audit committee heavily criticised online-only ‘fast fashion’ retailers, which are amongst the worst offenders when it comes to unethical practices. Its recommendations – which could have made a real difference – included having minimal levels of ethical and sustainability standards.

Priti Patel has dangerously and falsely claimed “cultural sensitivities” prevented robust investigation into these Leicester factories, while neglecting to mention austerity cuts to HMRC, the Heath and Safety Executive and other enforcement agencies, as well as cuts to local authorities and the sustained Tory attacks on unions and workers’ rights. The Tory government has also overseen a mushrooming of insecure working practices, including zero-hour contracts.

There is real anger and dismay from many that the government has long been aware of instances of worker exploitation but failed to act. We should not be silenced or distracted by their political games. And it is important to ask why people go to work in such conditions.

Many British workers in Leicester have no other local employment options other than the garment industry, especially since the decimation of the city’s manufacturing base by Thatcherism. Many have been working in this industry since long before the introduction by the 1997 Labour government of the minimum wage.

There are also specific issues when it comes to migrants and refugees. The continued ‘no recourse to public funds’ rule for migrants pushes people into exploitative labour, locking them out from receiving vital state support. And people seeking asylum in Britain currently do not have the right to work, instead being expected to live on £5.66 per day.

These are examples of policies that push people into exploitative and unsafe labour to survive, and they are a toxic part of the government’s failed ‘hostile environment’ approach to immigration. As one worker said: “If the government made sure everyone got enough money to survive during the pandemic, no-one would come into the factories.” The government should immediately suspend NRPF conditions on public health and humanitarian grounds, and lift the ban on asylum seekers working legally.

Any analysis of the impact of ‘fast fashion’ must take account of the environmental impact, including of making the fabric, shipping the item and often burying it in landfill. We also need to act as ethical consumers, recognising that we all have a responsibility to protect the workers who make the clothes we wear.

However, our central demand as socialists must be for sectoral collective bargaining to raise wages, reduce inequality, prevent the undercutting of terms and conditions, enable effective enforcement of rights and more importantly enable the voices of workers to be heard.

Leicester’s garment industry crisis is a microcosm of the assault on workers’ rights, and this situation demonstrates why protecting everyone in our society – and our planet – is the only just way forward. After this crisis, Leicester can no longer be known as ‘the sweatshop of Europe’. The government must now tackle the widespread issues of underpayment and unsafe working conditions.

Change in this area – and from the ‘fast fashion’ companies themselves – will only come from organisation, clear demands and publicly shaming those exploiting people. We can no longer tolerate billionaire company owners making vast profits on the back of the working class. The time has come to put people and health before private profit – that means decent jobs, workers’ rights and an end to exploitative labour.

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