The campaign group spoke with garment workers in Leicester and heard cases of employers at factories forcing workers to come in throughout the lockdown, despite high rates of infections within the factories. Some workers were even told to keep results secret if they tested positive for the virus, according to the organisation.
“Emerging evidence indicates that conditions in Leicester’s factories, primarily producing for Boohoo, are putting workers at risk of COVID-19 infections and fatalities,” the campaign group says.
The fast-fashion brand accounts for 75–80% of garment production in the city.
According to The Guardian,
“Analysis of data collected by local health bodies shows that many of those infected recently have been young men aged 20 to 40, often from an Asian background, many of them working in textiles and food.”
As well as putting workers at significant risk to continue operations it seems many factories may be utilising the pandemic for their own gain. Workers said furlough fraud was commonplace. They reported that some managers had asked workers to hide payslips so they could make false claims for money and some employers were claiming furlough payments for workers that they had made redundant.
Over recent years, Leicester has been put under the spotlight for the numerous workers' rights abuses occurring in its garment manufacturing industry, and the situation has been dubbed a “national shame” by Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire.
Labour Behind the Label has produced a detailed report on the situation, reporting cases of wages well below the legal minimums, forced or unpaid overtime, intimidation of workers and instances of modern slavery with workers made vulnerable by their immigration status having their documents held by their employers – a common means of control. They say that the ongoing problems, with years of inaction, have effectively become an open secret in the area.
The situation has worsened with Covid19, and the campaign organisation says this has played a key role in spreading coronavirus in the city.
Exploitative systems put people at risk
These abuses are disproportionately affecting people from ethnic minorities, with the majority of garment workers in Leicester from minority ethnic groups. As The Guardian says, “the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the BAME groups and on South Asians in particular is well known. Increased exposure in small factories is particularly dangerous”.
According to the Labour Behind the Label report, Boohoo Group Ltd “sources around 60–70% of its production from Leicester. This has reportedly increased in recent weeks to around 80%”.
Meg Lewis, Campaigns Manager for Labour Behind the Label, said: “We have repeatedly called on Boohoo to improve labour rights in their supply chain, yet they have failed to take meaningful action. The surge in Boohoo’s profits during the COVID-19 crisis is directly linked to their disregard of responsible sourcing.”
“As the biggest brand sourcing from Leicester, Boohoo calls the shots in the local supply chain,” said Dominique Muller, Policy Director for Labour Behind the Label.
“Government authorities must recognise that the lack of proper legislation and monitoring is endangering workers lives – it is time to ensure that workers in Leicester are protected and better practice in the garment industry respected.”
Boohoo said in a statement that it had “fundamentally changed the way that we operate” since coronavirus and that “every decision we have made has had the safety and wellbeing of our people at heart”. It said it was confident that those in its supply chain were operating safely and that it provided free PPE and sanitiser as well as remaining in close contact.
Emphasising its strict code of conduct, it said: “None of our suppliers have been affected at this time and we are pleased that our in-house compliance team have been able to resume their work. Our third-party auditors are also out visiting sites this week.”