Fast fashion factories linked to spread of coronavirus in Leicester 

Leicester has become the first place in the UK to be put under a second and localised lockdown after Covid19 cases in the city started to rise again. Labour Behind the Label says that the mistreatment of workers at factories supplying Boohoo and other brands may have helped to spread the virus since lockdown began.

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.

Continuing abuses

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”.

Boohoo

It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that one of the key brands linked to the abuses is Boohoo, the poster child for everything wrong with fast fashion.

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.”

UPDATE: Boohoo commits to investigating supplier following undercover investigation

Boohoo has committed to investigating its Leicester supplier Jaswal Fashions, after an undercover investigation by The Times found that workers were being paid just £3.50 an hour and that the factory had continued operating during Leicester's localised lockdown without additional hygiene or social distancing measures. The investigation, published on the 4th July, included footage of garments bearing the Nasty Gal label, owned by Boohoo. The minimum wage for over 25s in the UK is £8.72 an hour.

The report comes a week after home secretary Priti Patel asked the National Crime Agency to investigate modern slavery in Leicester's clothing factories. The Sunday Times and Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen approached Patel, after being contacted by whistleblowers about alleged illegal practices in the factories. Patel described the allegations as "truly appalling". However, Bridgen said he had repeatedly raised concerns with the government over the past year but felt he had been ignored.

Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health & Social Care, told Sky News: "Well we’ve seen outbreaks in food factories and in clothing factories. There are some quite significant concerns about some of the employment practices in some of the clothing factories in Leicester. They are important problems to deal with, but the number one problem that we’ve got to deal with is getting this virus under control."

Boohoo has said that Jaswal was not one of its declared suppliers and was no longer trading as a garment-maker. It believes that another firm is using the former Jaswal premises and is seeking to establish the identity of the company.

Boohoo said: "We are taking immediate action to thoroughly investigate how our garments were in their hands, will ensure that our suppliers immediately cease working with this company, and we will urgently review our relationship with any suppliers who have sub-contracted work to the manufacturer in question."

However, it is not the first time Boohoo has been warned about allegations of abuse within its Leicester supply chain, with an ongoing campaign from Labour Behind the Label to improve conditions.

Boohoo's share price tumbled by more than 16% on Monday following the exposé.

What can you do?

Send a message to brands

Call them out on social media or send a message through a campaign group using the following links:

Write to your MP

In June 2019, the government rejected all the key recommendations made by the Environmental Audit Committee’s Fixing Fast Fashion report. The committee had been tasked to investigate what should be done to mitigate the multiple pitfalls of the fast fashion industry and produced a damning report of how the industry impacts people and planet and how the failure to legislate allows it to happen.

Write to your MP to let them know that you believe the government needs to rethink this position and take serious action against companies putting people at risk during the pandemic. Its easy to contact your representatives through mySociety’s website: www.writetothem.com
 

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