Poor working conditions persist in Leicester garment factories, finds survey

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More than half of the Leicester garment workers involved in a new study say they are paid below the minimum wage and receive no holiday pay, almost two years on from revelations about poor standards in the city’s factories.

The study was commissioned by a new body, the Garment and Textile Workers Trust, which is funded by online fashion retailer Boohoo, as part of efforts to clean up its act after revelations about poor practice in the group’s Leicester supply chain.

The 116 workers who filled in a questionnaire – carried out for the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab and De Montfort University between November last year and this March – revealed they continued to suffer poor treatment. Complaints included workers not being allowed to take breaks, lack of sick pay and being pressured to work long shifts.

Almost half (49%) of those involved in the study received no sick pay, 56% had been paid below the minimum wage, 55% did not receive holiday pay and a third had no contract and did not receive a payslip.

Workers said they were nervous to speak out for fear of reprisals, with more than half fearing they would lose their job and 8% saying they were not working legally, either because they were claiming benefits or due to their immigration status. About 4% said they did not have the right to work in the UK.

The report says that tolerance to “malpractice and criminality” has partly been prompted by a perception of “ineffective or nonexistent law enforcement” in response to the problem in Leicester and “no meaningful changes resulting from previous interventions”.

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It concludes: “Although some problems may take a generation to resolve, important progress can be made in the short and medium term through expanding initiatives that increase workers’ economic autonomy, addressing the factors that prevent intervention in exploitation, and promoting fairer labour practices.”

Its 10 recommendations include creating a single point of contact for workers wishing to make a complaint to enforcement agencies, rather than them having to contact HMRC, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority or a string of other bodies responsible for health and safety.

Other recommendations include English language and other training to give workers’ more employment choices and establishing a locally based multi-sector and multi-agency partnership to coordinate action.

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Boohoo, which holds its annual shareholder meeting in Leicester later this week to highlight its work to improve conditions in factories there, provided £100,000 to set up the trust and a further £1m to fund its first year of grants. The body, which is led by an independent board of trustees, is intended to provide support, remedy and advocacy for workers across Leicester’s garment and textile industry.

A Boohoo Group spokesperson said the company’s main reason for funding the start up of the trust was to support it inempowering workers to help eradicate any driver of exploitation”.

Boohoo Group said in a statement: “The independent research that [the trust has] commissioned has provided real-time post pandemic insight into the lived experience of the those working in and around Leicester’s textile industry. We are fully behind the trust’s objectives which do not replace or replicate the responsibility and progress that we have made in strengthening standards and oversight in our own supply chain in the city.

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“We are committed to working closely all interested parties to ensure the people who make our clothes have their rights in the workplace protected.”

Kevin McKeever, chair of the trust, said: “It’s crystal clear that there’s only so much companies, individuals, trade unions and civil society can do to tackle labour exploitation in Leicester and beyond – it’s time for government to step up and form – and fund – their long-promised single enforcement body.”

One Leicester-based supplier said he believed that conditions in the city had improved in the past five years as major brands were now working with the Fast Forward labour standards improvement programme and would not work with any factory not meeting ethical standards.

“Those unscrupulous businesses that still want to operate below the minimum wage, the chains don’t work with them,” he said.

Dominique Muller, policy director at Labour Behind the Label, warned that fashion retailers must reform their pricing and purchasing practices, alongside better regulation from the government.

“Brands must start paying higher prices to enable suppliers and sub contractors to invest in decent work and pay a decent wage – without this there will be no long term sustainability,” Muller said.

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