Analysis: workplace exploitation in Leicester's fast fashion industry may be responsible for the new pandemic lockdown in the city

By Alan DesmondUniversity of Leicester

The announcement at the end of June that a local lockdown would be imposed on Leicester from July 4th until at least July 18th appeared to catch many of the city's residents and elected officials by surprise. The city, which made international headlines in recent years for the discovery and reburial of the remains of King Richard III in 2015 and its football team’s shock premier league win in 2016, has now gained notoriety for being the first area in the UK to be the subject of a local lockdown on account of an increase in coronavirus cases. This has given rise to questions as to why the city has experienced such a spike in infections.

"Leicester clothes the world"

Part of the answer to that question may lie in exploitative practices in the city's garment industry. Leicester has a long and rich history as a textile industry hub. Today, the city is home to over 700 factories employing over 10,000 textile workers. Well-known brands like Next and Shoe Zone are headquartered in the city, while the online fast fashion retail giant Boohoo, owner of brands like Nasty Gal and PrettyLittleThing, is the biggest buyer of clothes from Leicester's garment factories.

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From RTÉ News, report on the new strict lockdown in Leicester due to rise in Covid-19 cases

The demands of fast fashion are key to understanding the stories of exploitation currently making headlines. Competition between clothes suppliers orchestrated by online retailers puts pressure on suppliers to provide ever-cheaper clothes, leading them to engage in illegal employment practices such as paying as little as £3 (€3.31) per hour, despite the hourly rate of £8.72 (€9.64) currently mandated by national minimum wage legislation.

Even without such pressure from retailers, some suppliers may seek to maximise profits through exploitation of their workers. While many might associate the exploitation of workers in garment factories with distant developing countries like Bangladesh, such abuse is also rife in Europe. 

UK Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock earlier this month claimed these problems had been under the radar in Leicester. However, Nik Hammer and others at the University of Leicester produced research in 2015 revealing widespread sub-standard working conditions in the city's garment industry. More recent investigations have suggested that exploitative work practices, such as widespread failure to meet minimum wage requirements or provide holiday pay or sick pay, are "an open secret".

The law against worker exploitation

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Ryan Tubridy Show, designer Laura Egan on sustainable clothing versus fast fashion

Like most countries, the UK has in place a framework designed to ensure decent working conditions. Legislation on a national minimum wage, employment rights and modern slavery aims to guarantee minimum labour standards across the UK and to eliminate situations of forced labour.

However, the problem lies in enforcement of these rules. Unionisation rates in the garment industry in all countries tend to be very low. Many workers are unaware of their rights, and therefore unlikely to take action against employers before courts or tribunals. Even if aware of their rights, migrant workers are discouraged by the UK's "hostile environment" for non-citizens from drawing attention to themselves. Furthermore, the UK’s labour standards enforcement bodies appear to be under-resourced and unduly restricted in the penalties they can impose on abusive employers.

Exploitation during the pandemic

According to the Labour Behind the Label NGO, some garment workers in Leicester have been forced to continue working throughout the lockdown announced in March. Despite difficulties  in accessing Leicester's clothes factories and in speaking to workers, Labour Behind the Label released a report at the end of June, entitled Boohoo & COVID-19. The report alleges that workers, even if ill with COVID-19, were required to turn up for work to meet retailers’ orders: Boohoo sales jumped during the pandemic as its fast and flexible manufacturing base began to produce lockdown loungewear.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Louise McSharry Show, Tara Stewart from the Dirty Laundry podcast on how Boohoo has faced scrutiny over allegations of poor working conditions in its supply chain

The risk of spreading the virus could be reduced in an appropriately adapted workplace, but Leicester's garment workshops appear to be an ideal incubation site. Small, cramped, poorly ventilated and often housed in dilapidated buildings, it is unlikely that sufficient protection measures such as social distancing are being observed. It may be more than a coincidence that the centre of clothes manufacturing in Leicester and the centre of the city's coronavirus flare-up are cheek by jowl.

High profit, low risk

One of the things that makes it so difficult to effectively expose and prosecute the type of workplace abuse occurring in Leicester is the frequent vulnerability of the people being exploited. Many of those employed in Leicester's garment workshops have a poor command of English, are not British citizens and may have a precarious immigration status or even be illegally present in the UK. This means that they will actively avoid state officials out of fear that any contact may lead to deportation. Such people are easy prey for cost-conscious, competition-minded employers who seek to supply cheap clothes to retailers while maximising profits.

This situation is also unfair for employers who play by the rules. Their profit margins may not only be narrower than those of their less law-abiding competitors, but they may in some instances simply be unable to compete with rivals who supply clothes to retailers for barely more than the price of a cup of coffee.

RTÉ Brainstorm video on the high price of fast fashion

One long-term solution is to seek to change consumer habits by promoting greater levels of ethical consumerism through raising awareness of the dark side of fast fashion. More immediately, greater pressure could be applied to retailers to ensure that their suppliers comply with minimum labour standards.

Similarly, the situation would be transformed by more proactive workplace inspections and information campaigns on workers’ rights in languages spoken by the workers in question. A route to a legal migration status to ensure that migrant employees with precarious migration status who complain to or cooperate with authorities would not face expulsion from the UK would also help. In the absence of such measures, worker exploitation is likely to remain a high profit, low risk undertaking for unscrupulous employers, while continuing to pose a health risk for the local community.

Alan Desmond is a lecturer in law at the University of Leicester. He recently edited Shining New Light on the UN Migrant Workers Convention (Pretoria University Law Press) which is available to download for free here. He is a former Irish Research Council awardee.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ