Surge in Covid-19 infections in English city brings attention to growing ‘sweatshop’ economy

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Labour exploitation in Britain’s textile “sweatshops” could increase if diplomatic and trade disputes with Asian manufacturers forced cut-price fashion retailers to source more clothing in the UK, an anti-slavery charity said.

Hope for Justice is working with Boohoo after reports of poor conditions at garment factories in the English city of Leicester, which supply the international retailer.

The share price of the UK-listed fashion brand has fallen by a quarter since Friday, days after a British newspaper published an exposé on "modern slavery" in the city’s textile sector.

Workers in factories that supplied Boohoo said they were being forced to work despite suffering Covid-19 symptoms, in cramped conditions and with few measures to ensure social distancing, the report said.

Up to 1,500 clothing makers operate in Leicester, employing about 10,000 people. They have largely continued to operate during the pandemic.

Worker abuse in the sector has been reported for years and campaigners say the UK government has done little to tackle the problem.

Campaigners have long complained that Boohoo’s cut-price offerings, including £5 (Dh23) dresses, are incompatible with labour rights.

The newspaper exposé claimed workers in some factories in the city are paid £3.50 an hour – less than half the mandatory £8.72 minimum wage.

Advertising billboards for Boohoo and for Pretty Little Thing, a Boohoo brand, at Canary Wharf Docklands Light Railway Station in London. Reuters

The spotlight fell on Leicester after the city went into lockdown because its infection rate was higher than elsewhere in the UK.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Sunday said he was very worried about employment practices in some factories.

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

Mr Wain said worsening relations with Russia, China and Covid-19 had created “challenging conditions” for cut-price retailers in Britain.

“It could well be that they draw back into UK manufacturing because of those difficulties in international relations and supply chains,” he said.

“Maybe this is a wake-up call. This is an opportunity to have a good look at the situation.”

Leicester’s garment factories have largely continued to operate during the pandemic.

One man told the BBC he sat close to colleagues who did not wear gloves or masks, and that a single garment could be touched by up to 40 people.

“I carried on working because I have three children, a wife and parents to support back in Afghanistan,” he said.

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

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

The controversy has damaged Boohoo, which makes 40 per cent of its products in the UK.

Campaign group Labour Behind the Label said 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 the city’s garment factories.

It said its cheapest, £5 dresses were a “marketing tool” to attract customers and were sold at a loss.

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”.

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

The company sells own-brand clothing and accessories aimed at men and women aged 16 to 40, and had a market capitalisation on Friday of about £5 billion.

By Tuesday afternoon, it stood at £3.6bn.

Leicester has been identified as a human-trafficking hotspot and has a higher proportion of ethnic minorities than many other English cities of its size.

The garment industry is among those abusing cheap labour, said Stop the Traffik, which campaigns against modern slavery.

Police visited nine factories on Friday with immigration and health officials but none was ordered to close.

Complaints about how some factories were operating under the lockdown in April are already under investigation, the city’s council said.

But it criticised the government for failing to act on the recommendations of a committee of MPs who last year called for more factory owners to be brought to account.

The city’s deputy mayor, Adam Clarke, said officials had found “no evidence to suggest 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,” Mr Clarke said.

The infection rate has fallen in the city from 135 cases for every 100,000 people 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 fell to 50 for every 100,000 people, Britain’s opposition Labour Party said.

Updated: July 8, 2020 12:50 AM

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