Spike in Covid-19 infections in English city focuses attention on growing ‘sweat shop’ economy

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Labour exploitation in Britain’s textile ‘sweat shops’ could increase as diplomatic and trade disputes with Asian manufacturers could force cut-price fashion retailers to source more clothing in the UK, according to an anti-slavery charity.

Hope for Justice is working with Boohoo, which has seen its share price cut by a quarter since Friday after a series of reports about poor conditions at textile factories in the English city of Leicester which supplies the international retailer.

Workers have complained that they were forced to work in the city’s store despite suffering Covid-19 symptoms and were forced to work in cramped factories with few measures to ensure social distancing, according to a report by campaigners published last week.

Leicester, home to up to 1,500 clothing manufacturers, has been at the centre of reports of worker abuse for years amid complaints that the UK government has done little to tackle the problems.

A shopper walks pass advertising billboards for Boohoo and for 'Pretty Little Things', a Boohoo brand, at Canary Wharf DLR station in central London, Britain, September 17, 2018. REUTERS/James Akena

Campaigners have long complained that Boohoo’s cut-price offerings – including £5 (Dh23) dresses – are incompatible with labour rights. A newspaper exposé claimed that workers in some local factories in the city where Boohoo has suppliers are paid £3.50 an hour – less than half the mandatory £8.72 minimum wage.

The spotlight has fallen on Leicester after the city went into lockdown because of a high infection rate compared with other parts of the UK. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday that he was very worried about employment practices in some factories.

The revelations could lead to improvements in working conditions even as suppliers look to the UK for cheaper garments, said Neil Wain, international programme manager for Hope for Justice.

Worsening relations with Russia, China and Covid-19 has created “challenging conditions” for cut-price retailers in the UK.

“It could well be that they draw back into UK manufacturing because of those difficulties in international relations and supply chains,” said Mr Wain. “Maybe this is a wake-up call… This is an opportunity to have a good look at the situation.”

The city has 10,000 workers working in its estimated 1,500 textile factories that have largely continued operations during the pandemic.

One man told the BBC that he sat close to colleagues who did not wear gloves or masks and up to 40 people could touch one garment as it was worked on. “I carried on working because I have three children, a wife and parents to support back in Afghanistan,” he told the broadcaster.

Coronavirus rates in the city have fallen since the government ordered the city to close non-essential shops last week after a flare-up of cases.

Home Secretary Priti Patel last week also ordered an inquiry into modern slavery in Leicester because of concerns about working practices.

The controversy has damaged Boohoo, which sources 40 per cents of its products in the UK. Campaign group Labour behind the Label said that most of those garments were made in Leicester.

The company told MPs investigating industry practices that its discount prices were not to blame for illegally low wages in Leicester’s garment factories.

It said its lowest price £5 dresses were a “marketing tool” to attract customers to the website and were loss-making items.

In response to the report by Labour behind the Label, Boohoo said it “categorically does not tolerate any incidence of non-compliance especially in relation to the treatment of workers within our supply chain”.

It said: “We have terminated relationships with suppliers where evidence of non-compliance with our strict code of conduct is found.”

The company targets 16 to 40-year-olds with its own-brand clothing and accessories and had a market capitalisation on Friday of nearly £5 billion. By Tuesday afternoon, it stood at £3.6 billion.

The city, which has a higher proportion of ethnic minorities compared with similar-sized English cities, has been identified as a human trafficking hotspot, with the garment industry among those abusing cheap labour, according to Stop the Traffik which campaigns against modern slavery.

Police visited nine factories on Friday with immigration and health officials but none were closed down. Complaints about how some factories were operating under the lockdown in April are already under investigation, said the city’s council.

But it also criticised the government for failing to act on recommendations of a committee of MPs last year who urged that more factory owners were brought to account for labour rules breaches.

The city’s deputy mayor, Adam Clarke, said officials had found “no evidence to suggest that the rise in coronavirus cases in the city was linked to the textile industry”.

“Significant community testing is now under way in Leicester and workplaces and factory settings will be an important part of this in helping us to track and prevent the further transmission of the virus,” he said.

The infection rate has fallen in the city from 135 cases per 100,000 to 117, Mr Hancock said on Tuesday, but it was not clear when the city would fall into line with the rest of England. The next steps will be announced on July 18.

In Germany, lockdowns have been lifted when cases were reduced to 50 per 100,000 people, said the opposition Labour party.

Updated: July 7, 2020 10:15 PM

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