LEICESTER CLOTHING FACTORIES:
MODERN SLAVERY, EXPLOITATION AND ACCOUNTABILITY
FOR THE GOOD LAW PROJECT
1. In the first weekend of July 2020, two newspapers published reports containing grave allegations about exploitation in Leicester clothing factories, linking ‘fast fashion’ produced for huge online brands such as Boohoo to workers being paid a fraction of the minimum wage and working in squalid, sweatshop conditions. These stories came just days after the Government had announced that local lockdown measures were being implemented in Leicester due to a spike in coronavirus cases.
2. The first report was in The Guardian on Saturday 4th July, describing Boohoo - Britain’s fastest-growing online fashion retailer - profiting from ‘stay at home’ clothing linked to Covid-19, and citing allegations made in a new report published by the organisation Labour Behind the Label that workers in Leicester had been asked to keep working during the crisis despite coronavirus outbreaks on site. The report also highlighted concerns about conditions in some of Leicester’s factories, including “claims over conditions of modern slavery, illegally low wages, VAT fraud and inadequate safety measures,” and cited one industry source as saying that Boohoo’s industry dominance was linked to it obtaining clothing from suppliers at prices and speeds which necessarily must involve non-compliance with minimum wage requirements and other standards: “‘there is simply no way that they can be buying things at the prices that they are and getting them at the pace that they are’ while ensuring adherence to ethical conditions and pay… ‘It’s not that they actively make them do it.’”
3. The Guardian report cited a labour rights researcher, Thulsi Narayanasamy, who went inside Leicester garment factories earlier this year as saying, “I’ve been inside garment factories in Bangladesh, China and Sri Lanka, and I can honestly say that what I saw in the middle of the UK was worse than anything I’ve witnessed overseas.” He described squalid conditions with boarded windows, cramped workers and blocked fire escapes.
4. On Sunday 5th July, the Sunday Times’ front page carried an article which alleged slavery and exploitation in in the supply chain for Boohoo, at a factory in Leicester which displayed the sign Jaswal Fashions. An undercover reporter, Vidhathri Matety, described beginning work at a Leicester clothing factory on 2nd July 2020, within hours of the announced local lockdown, working with boxes of clothes marked with high street fashion labels including Boohoo and NastyGal. It was reported that he spent two days working in the factory where he was told to expect £3.50 per hour, despite the minimum wage for those aged 25 and older being £8.72. The report described there being almost no protective equipment, at the height of the pandemic, and no additional hygiene, social distancing or safety measures in place. The report quoted one worker as stating, “they only exploit us. They make huge profits and pay us peanuts.”
5. The Sunday Times report was followed by other outlets highlighting further examples of exploitation in Leicester garment factories. The Daily Mail, for example, reported speaking to a worker employed as a packer at a factory which supplies Boohoo, who works from 8am to 9pm and is paid only £4 an hour, less than half the £8.72 to which he is entitled. He described having some of the symptoms of coronavirus but being terrified of losing his job if he told his boss. Another worker at a different factory, a female machinist, reported being unwell but having to work, alongside others with coronavirus symptoms, and without face masks or gloves being provided. That factory also supplies Boohoo.
6. Home Secretary, Priti Patel MP, described the allegations in the Sunday Times as “truly appalling” and said, “I will not tolerate sick criminals forcing innocent people into slave labour and a life of exploitation. Let this be a warning to those who are exploiting people in sweatshops like these for their own commercial gain.” Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Matt Hancock MP said he was, “very worried about the employment practices in some factories” in Leicester and that there are “some quite significant concerns.” “There are clearly some problems that have been under the radar in Leicester that need action,” he said.
7. Statements were made by a number of the companies which were implicated in the allegations in the weekend papers. A statement from Nasty Gal said that the company would investigate the claims, but insisted that the factory was not a “direct supplier” and stated, “Nasty Gal does not allow any of its suppliers to pay less than the minimum wage and has a zero-tolerance approach to incidences of modern slavery. We have terminated relationships with suppliers where evidence of non-compliance with our strict code of conduct is found.” Boohoo, similarly, stated that, “The Boohoo group will not tolerate any incidence of non-compliance especially in relation to the treatment of workers within our supply chain” and that it was “shocked and appalled by the recent allegations that have been made.”
8. In this briefing, we explain why this rhetoric – of Ministers “appalled” and “worried” about exploitation which was “below the radar,” of companies “shocked and appalled” by revelations that those in its supply chain somehow circumvented their “strict” codes of conduct and their “zero tolerance” approaches to modern slavery – is simply not persuasive, given that fashion sweatshops in Leicester have been documented and an open secret for at least a decade, since Channel 4 Despatches’ undercover investigation in 2010 found “dangerous, pressurised sweatshop conditions” and workers being paid far below the National Minimum Wage (‘NMW’) to produce clothes supplied to high street retailers. The key concerns uncovered by the Guardian, Sunday Times, Daily Mail and others weeks ago, in early July 2020, were not new. Indeed, the same area in Leicester and, in some cases, the same factories had already been the subject of detailed investigative reporting for a decade before the recent splashes: including by Channel 4 Despatches in 2010 and again in 2017; by the Financial Times and Just Style in 2018; and by the BBC World Service in 2019.
9. In addition, precisely the concerns which the Home Secretary has recently described as “truly appalling” and the Health Secretary described as being “under the radar” and “needing action” were laid out, in stark detail, in two Parliamentary Committee reports years before the splash over the pages of national newspapers in July 2020: a 2017 report by the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights (which described how the Committee “heard compelling evidence during our visit to Leicester that labour rights abuses are endemic in the Leicester garment industry”) and a 2019 report by the Environmental Audit Committee (‘EAC’) (which specifically raised concerns regarding Boohoo, Missguided and ASOS, found that labour exploitation is taking place in the UK, and that it is, “an open secret that some garment factories in places like Leicester are not paying the minimum wage”).
10. Not only were the Committees recommendations as to how these issues should be tackled rejected; within weeks of the EAC report being published, a Minister, Liz Truss MP, gave a speech lauding Boohoo, saying “people like that, people who decide to do things differently, should be celebrated. But too often businesses are treated as pariahs. Dragged in front of the business select committee. Told off for somehow not treating their workers well.” And six months before the Home Secretary’s strong words in July 2020, warning those who exploit people in sweatshops for commercial gain that she would “not tolerate” this behaviour, a fellow MP, Andrew Bridgen, speaking in the Commons, had highlighted his concerns that he believed “there are approximately 10,000 people in the clothing industry being paid £3 to £4 an hour in conditions of modern slavery” in Leicester, something he described subsequently to the Guardian as, “Leicester’s dirty secret… it’s a national shame.”
11. But even 2010 is far from the start of this particular story. In fact, concerns regarding exploitative working conditions in the Leicester garment industry date back even further. The Low Pay Commission (‘LPC’) has repeatedly raised concerns regarding exploitation in Leicester, in reports dating back to its first ever report over two decades ago, in June 1998. Painstaking research by the University of Leicester Centre for Sustainable Work and Employment Futures, conducted between 2008 and 2014, exposed “a stark picture of non-compliance with fundamental standards such as statutory minimum regulations” and “a stark paradox in that monitoring and auditing are omnipresent but grossly ineffective.”
12. As we explain in this Briefing, prepared for the Good Law Project, for two decades these exploitative practices have been happening in plain sight. Regrettably, throughout this time, there has also been a total failure of the various mechanisms which could and should have protected the most vulnerable and held to account all those who benefit from supply chains reliant on illegal, cheap labour and a flouting of ethical and safety standards. Since the coming into force of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the companies involved have annually produced bland and vague modern slavery statements which claim that they are committed to a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to modern slavery and exploitation. We suggest that the evidence makes clear that such a claim is not credible.
13. The National Crime Agency (‘NCA’) has now been ordered commence a criminal investigation, and Boohoo has launched its own investigatio