In early July, the rise of coronavirus cases in Leicester, in the UK’s Midlands, placed the dire conditions in which our clothes are made into sharp focus.
While reports at the time discussed the dirty open secret of low-paid workers and poor working conditions, what many didn’t mention is how this industry in the Midlands was built upon normalising low wages for long hours and little to no workers’ rights. This is delicate subject matter for workers entangled in a mess that spans decades. They are angry about the lack of change, and most are afraid to speak out. You can’t blame them – for many, it’s a choice between having a job or not.
Two workers provided VICE News with insight into an industry that has operated modern-day sweatshops, right here in England.
Drew* has been in the industry for 27 years. They moved from India and have worked for eight different factories. In late-80s Leicester, factories of all kinds – ones that made boots and sold mechanical spare parts – started closing one by one. “These factories were owned by mostly white people, and some went bankrupt and some were sold,” explains Drew. “There were no clothing factories, as such, until the 90s.”
This provided an opportunity for newly arrived immigrants, mainly from a South Asian background, to put their stamp on local business. It started with knitting factories, where cotton was spun to knit clothing fabric. “Big retailers would come in with direct orders,” says Drew. “Workers worked up to 15 hours a day, with one person looking after five knitting machines. Machines ran for 24 hours, nonstop.”
The factory Drew works for today can make up to 15,000 garments in a regular working week, which takes place from Monday to Saturday. Immigrants make up a large percentage of the workforce. Whether they arrived in England 20 years ago or a month prior, these are people who want to work their way towards a better life, but are stuck in a rut.
“No one is speaking up, because that’s how it’s been,” says Drew. “Workers have their own troubles. Most have young kids, want a flexible working life and think nobody else will hire them. They are a cog in a system that is taking advantage of them.”
Race has played a huge part in this story. The ethnicity of factory workers has been weaponised to explain the rise in COVID-19 cases in Leicester, with people experiencing racism as a result of the local lockdown. One person told HuffPo: “This racist backlash to the Leicester lockdown and the blaming of certain communities does not surprise me – but it does depress me.”
Jamie has been a garment worker for 28 years and, like Drew, moved from India. They say that the issue has affected other ethnic groups, too. “In the past seven years or so, Eastern European immigrants in Leicester are in the same situation. They don’t know English, so work in factories for low wages… It’s easy to blame garment workers for the increase in coronavirus cases in Leicester.”
Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing (PLT) have faced sweatshop allegations in Leicester. After the city had entered lockdown again on the 30th of June, the spotlight was firmly placed on the textile industry.
A Sunday Times investigation reported accusations of poor working conditions and employees paid below minimum wage, and Boohoo co-founder Jalal Kamani is allegedly linked to a factory in Leicester accused of failing to protect workers from coronavirus. (Boohoo released a statement saying it was “shocked and appalled” by the claims.)
“I’ve made clothes for both Boohoo and PLT,” says Drew. “Designers hired by factories make patterns for a clothing item – cycling shorts, for example. There’s competition between factories on providing the cheapest orders. You make the sample, go to Boohoo, and you negotiate a price for how much it costs to make one piece.”
Ready-made garments come from places like India and Bangladesh, where one garment is as cheap as 70p. These are then purchased in online sales by local factories. “We order labels with the Boohoo brand name and add these to the garments which come from abroad, with the print added here in England,” Jamie explains. “That’s the process of re-packing. Boohoo and PLT know where these garments come from. They care about their name only. They don’t care where it comes from.”
VICE News contacted Boohoo for a response about their labelling of overseas garments used by the brand. They said: “Importing basic plain items of clothing and having print detail added in the UK is completely normal industry practice used across the retail sector. The items are not labelled as made in the UK and are repacked for onward shipping to distribution sites where specific box sizes are required.”
As well as Boohoo and PLT, Drew said their factory has also made clothes for British clothing label Select and plus-size brand Yours. VICE News was shown pieces they had made for these brands as recently as January, 2020.
Jamie adds: “Making clothes is competitive. They give contracts to factories depending on who can make the required pieces for the cheapest amount – retailers shop around.”
In a statement, Yours told VICE News: “Without knowing the name of the factory Yours Clothing cannot comment on the factory. We need to be able to identify if this is one of the factories that we have contracted work with. Without this we cannot investigate the factory, or comment."
When asked for comment, Select told VICE News that most of its clothing range was supplied from overseas and that it followed a strict code of ethical conduct and anti-slavery policy that bar it from purchasing clothes from factories that operate in an unethical manner.
A June report from workers’ group Labour Behind the Label accuses Boohoo of “driving prices down through directly setting suppliers into competition with each other”, with one supplier describing discussions with Boohoo as a “cattle market” in the Financial Times. Boohoo co-founder Carol Kane has denied that there are “any instances where suppliers are played off against each other”.
Factory owners are a problematic part of the puzzle, too. The Equality Act states that employees can discuss their pay between themselves and an employer cannot reprimand workers for it, but Jamie “was told by my boss not to share what my wage is because then people know they are being paid differently”.
“Owners decide to pay according to a worker’s speed,” they say. “I sat next to a lady who probably did not get the same wage as me.”
Drew is familiar with this situation: “The lowest I’ve been paid is when working in 1993 – £1.75 an hour. Today’s workers aren’t paid any better. Workers are paid on how fast they can make clothes […] I know people packing the clothes are paid around £4 an hour.”
Jamie believes that factories are committing payslip fraud in order to avoid the gaze of HMRC. “They reduce the hours on the payslip and add the minimum wage. So on my payslip it would say that I am working 24 hours a week, when I am working 50 hours and being paid half of the minimum wage.” VICE News has seen a payslip that confirms this.
Boohoo told VICE News: “We have been shocked and appalled by recent allegations of illegal practices within our supply chain in Leicester. We’re accelerating the third-party audit of our supply chain to ensure our suppliers are meeting their contractual and legal duties.
“We’ve also commissioned an independent review of our supply chain, led by Alison Levitt QC. We encourage anyone witnessing or experiencing illegalities such as breaches of minimum wage law to immediately report that to the relevant statutory authority.”
Yours told VICE News that it could not comment on any allegations of payslip fraud, while Select said that it paid staff in England and Wales minimum wage and that it had no knowledge or control over allegations of payslip fraud. It also condemned any abuse of workers’ rights.
“We also have unpaid lunch breaks,” Jamie adds. “In a ten-hour workday, we have one 30-minute lunch break. There are no workers’ rights. We don’t get paid minimum wage, no holiday pay, no sick pay – nothing.”
It all boils down to money, Drew says: “Factory owners make enough to pay workers the minimum wage. Workers are taken advantage of and the owners pocket the profits.”
They add that it’s not as easy as choosing to work for a different employer with better policies. “I still work for low pay because my language is a barrier. I’ve done this for a long time now. I can’t work for white people because I don’t speak good English. Who will hire me?”
Many other workers in Leicester have their own story to tell. Coronavirus has uncovered a toxic system in Leicester’s clothing factories, with over 50 MPs and brands like ASOS and River Island signing a letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel calling for greater action against the exploitation of garment workers. The future of the workers, though, will be the real test of change.
“I hope things actually change this time,” Drew sighs.
* Non-gendered names have been used to protect the identity of the interviewees