Exploitation in Leicester’s garment industry has been widely reported and studied for at least a decade. The latest inquiry, reported on Friday, was conducted by Alison Levitt QC, after the clothing manufacturer Boohoo was criticised for using supply chains that exploited workers in Leicester.
The inquiry’s conclusions reaffirm what we in Leicester have known for some time; that severe exploitation is rife in sections of our city’s garment industry.
Successive Conservative governments have also known this fact. To give one of many examples, a 2017 House of Commons Human Rights and Business inquiry "Promoting responsibility and ensuring accountability" included a full chapter on exploitation in Leicester’s garment industry and urged the government to take action.
Yet they repeatedly failed to do so, particularly in relation to enforcing the minimum wage. Indeed, HMRC reported 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 offering less than £3.50 an hour.
It is shameful, yet not surprising, that this latest report, commissioned by Boohoo themselves, found that Boohoo was aware of endemic workers’ rights abuses in Leicester’s garment industry.
By procuring garments from companies that routinely under-report hours, force employees to work in buildings that pose a severe fire risk and pay as little as four times lower than the legal minimum wage – Boohoo has been complicit in severe instances of exploitation. Yet they appear to have ignored the plight of workers, no doubt in pursuit of ever-higher profits.
It sadly comes as no surprise that Leicester is known as the “sweatshop" of Europe when some of our most vulnerable residents are forced to work in cramped, unsafe conditions for poverty wages. Sales of clothes made by suppliers in Leicester have presumably also helped to boost Boohoo’s profits, and thus the bonuses of its bosses.
The blame for workplace exploitation must never lie with workers, but with unscrupulous bosses who knowingly break the law by paying under the legally mandated minimum wage.Vulnerable workers should never be held at fault for the exploitative practices of employers.
The report’s findings have reaffirmed the need for unionised, accountable workplaces that prioritise employee wellbeing. Trade Unions are the best line of defence against workplace exploitation. Yet the collective ability of workers to organise has been systematically eroded by decades of anti-trade union legislation. The latest Global Rights Index from the International Trade Union Congress placed the UK among the worst violators of trade union rights in Europe.
Forty years ago, eight out of every ten workers enjoyed terms and conditions negotiated by a trade union. Today, less than one in four workers have that benefit. To protect workers across the country, the 2016 Trade Union Act must be repealed, trade union autonomy and sectoral collective bargaining must be restored and the right to take industrial action – in accordance with international law – must be re-established.
The scandalous mistreatment of workers in Leicester, affecting my constituency of Leicester East, is an extreme microcosm of the national and global decay of worker’s rights during the failed neoliberal project of the last 40 years.
In an email forwarded by Boohoo’s own director of sustainability in December 2019, one Leicester factory was described by an auditor as having “the worst working conditions that I have seen in the UK”. Yet the concern was not for the wellbeing of the beaten-down workers, but because “the risk is so high to the Boohoo brand”. While there is much to commend in the latest inquiry for exposing the scale of ongoing exploitation it concerns me that Levitt’s review concluded that Boohoo did not intentionally profit from exploited workers in Leicester.
This might explain why no one at Boohoo has yet resigned or why workers have not been offered compensation and redress for the abuse they have long suffered. We need urgent government action to end poverty pay, incentivise trade union membership and enforce the minimum wage. The exploitation of workers’ rights is a global issue and a broader, public inquiry might reveal exploitative practices in Boohoo’s supply chain both across the UK and overseas.
It sickens me that, Boohoo shares went up by as much as 20 per cent after the publication of Levitt’s report. We cannot allow companies to engage in this kind of predatory business model, in which corporate profits are seemingly prioritised above human rights and wellbeing.
It is hard to understand what the government has been doing to address the problems in Leicester’s garment industry, which have been brought to official attention over many years and posed an obvious injustice to workers.
This inaction reflects a Conservative government and sections of big business who apparently believe that the mistreatment of workers is inevitable – that rights, fair pay, and dignity in the workplace are an unacceptable cost to their bottom line. Yet, policies that promote a free market race to the bottom has normalised poverty, hopelessness and exploitation in my community.
Right now, workers in Leicester’s garment industry need a radically fairer offer. That means enforcing and raising the minimum wage to at least £10 an hour or to a real living wage as calculated by the Living Wage Foundation. It also means ending zero-hour contracts and the casualisation of labour and providing a new legal framework to ensure that every job provides security, dignity and a fair wage.
After this damning report, the government must make sure that the obscene wealth of the few can no longer be built on the exploitation of the many.
Claudia Webbe is the Labour MP for Leicester East