When the garment factory where Anil worked learned that the risk of coronavirus meant it couldn’t do business as usual, it didn’t shut up shop. Instead, it locked the doors.
“It was always going,” said Anil, not his real name. “They wrote on pieces of paper: ‘The factory is closed because of coronavirus.’ But they locked the doors, and inside, people were working.”
When Leicester’s new lockdown was announced, and fears surfaced that factory conditions had played a part in the city’s second wave of infections, production demands did not seem to dip. According to Anil, the factory ran overnight. “They finish at six o’clock in the morning for many days. Even [last] Sunday,” he said. “People don’t want to work overnight, but they say you must.”
The owners of this factory were eventually cowed as word spread of a sharp increase in activity by bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA). This week, Anil said, the overnight shifts came to an end, and hand sanitiser stations and social-distancing measures were put in place for the first time.
The Guardian has heard accounts from dozens of interviews with workers, family members, factory bosses, community figures and pressure groups.
Workers and those with relatives in factories made claims of part-time hours being logged while full-time hours were worked, giving the impression of legal wages being paid that were in fact far lower.
Some even told the Guardian they were aware of cases where workers’ employment or identity documents were held by factory bosses, leaving them unable to seek employment elsewhere. It was not clear which companies these factories supply.
On Wednesday evening, as about 20 women left shifts at the anonymous building where Anil works, they shook their heads and waved away attempts to ask questions, mostly explaining that they only spoke Gujarati. A supervisor who answered the door denied problems at the factory but said he had been told not to speak to journalists. “We are busy and have to work now. I’m not allowed to discuss any matter about it.”
Anil had also been reluctant to speak, saying he feared for his family’s safety. But he agreed because he was so angered by the treatment of workers. While his wife looks after their two children, he has been working about 40 hours a week for £200, about £5 an hour.
There was no canteen, and rats and mice were visible on the factory floor, Anil claimed. There was no hand sanitiser until last week, and the single men’s toilet had no soap. “They have put us in danger,” he said. “If I feel sick, I make my family sick. I put them in danger too.”
Since the second lockdown began, though, the pattern in Leicester has shifted. If the North Evington area where many of the city’s factories are based was previously beset with risky working practices and almost no scrutiny, this week an abundance of attention has come just as many workshops went dark.
The HSE, GLAA and other bodies have visited more than 20 factories and related businesses, while national politicians declared their determination to tackle the problem. Despite years of media coverage and major parliamentary reports, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said the issues had been “under the radar” and vowed that the government would act.
In the face of all that activity, workers, industry insiders and community groups say many factories are simply hoping to ride out the storm. “You’ve got people exploiting people, thinking: give this a couple of weeks and it’ll blow over,” said a GLAA official. “The message will be: ‘Keep your heads down.’”
Meanwhile, the fast fashion company Boohoo was fighting to protect a £5bn business. More than £1.5bn was wiped off its valuation in two days following claims that the company’s suppliers were among those paying low wages and breaching coronavirus safety guidelines. In the days that followed, as commentators accused it of turning a blind eye to the crisis, Boohoo launched an investigation and sought to emphasise that it was not responsible for issues in supply factories.
On Friday, the company told the Guardian it was “a customer of some of the garment manufacturers in the area and each of those has a strict code of conduct in place”. Boohoo, which is estimated to buy 75%-80% of the garments produced in Leicester, said it would “not condone any incidence of poor practice” and noted that additional auditing and compliance teams had been deployed this week “to support both our in-house and third-party auditing specialists that are already on the ground”.
Despite Boohoo’s promise and renewed attention on the wider problems in Leicester, some were doubtful about change. “We’ve had people saying there’s nothing major amiss, missing the much larger longstanding issues of working conditions, the lack of support, the pay rates,” said Priya Thamotheram, the head of the Highfields community centre. “I’m not sure what it’ll do other than continue with matters as they’ve been for the last 30 years or more.”
In minutes, seen by the Guardian, of an October 2019 meeting between local community groups and major brands – not including Boohoo – a detailed plan is set out for a “workable” but modest proposal to bring about change.
At an estimated initial cost of £100,000, it was hoped that the group could hire two experienced outreach workers in Leicester to help vulnerable workers. The community groups came away from the meeting thinking they had secured the funding. Nine months later, they say they have received none of it.
Labour Behind the Label, the group that first raised concerns over a coronavirus outbreak in factories, welcomed the independent Boohoo inquiry but said it was sceptical of the value of the company’s auditing process. It noted: “Unannounced audits are the ABC of audits and are not something to be proud of but are taken as a basic requirement.” A vital step, the group added, would be to introduce a whistleblowing hotline for workers.
There were similar concerns in Leicester, where one worker who claimed that their factory produced Boohoo clothing described visits from the brand – which until late 2019 ran in-house audits rather than using a third-party company – that appeared to be limited in scope.
“[Supervisors] seemed to know when they were going to come,” suggested the worker. “They would select people in advance and say: ‘You will talk to them and this is what you are going to say to them.’”
There are also claims that there have been times when workers have been rushed out of factories through back doors when Boohoo staff have arrived in the company’s highly visible branded cars, which it has previously described on Twitter as a “perk” for “business or personal use. From dashing to meetings … or even away for a long weekend with friends!”
On Thursday, three of the vibrantly patterned Fiat 500s – in turquoise, pink and peach – were parked outside the company’s Leicester office. Two had number plates ending ‘8OO HOO’.
For the authorities in Leicester, there are challenges to taking action against a problem that they broadly accept is serious. “There are issues for our agency, certainly,” said the GLAA source. “It’s quite difficult. We need to have evidence of a crime to get through the door.” Every one of the site visits conducted by the body since the story broke had been with the consent of the factory owner, the source said.
Factory owners, for their part, seem optimistic. Sixty-eight clothing companies have been registered in Leicester since the first lockdown began, many of which appear to have links to existing or defunct manufacturing firms in the city. “Things are normal,” said Anil. “Everybody carries on.”