Concerns have been raised in Parliament over the ongoing situation of up to 10,000 Leicester textile workers who are feared being trapped in conditions of modern slavery and being paid £3 an hour.
Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, on Tuesday raised a question about the ongoing state of working conditions in factories that supply Britain’s booming fast fashion industry and sought a meeting with Business Secretary Kelly Tolhurst to seek clarity on enforcement of the national minimum wage to obtain.
Speaking to the Guardian, Bridgen said what is happening in Leicester is a “national disgrace” and must not be allowed to continue.
“It’s Leicester’s dirty secret,” he said. “These illegal companies not only keep their workers in miserable conditions, they also undermine the market for legitimate companies that make a living in a very difficult market. I’ve seen the buildings these workers are in and it’s shocking: the buildings are leveled – if there was a fire there hundreds would die and this is Britain in 2020. It’s a national disgrace.”
Ongoing investigations into UK’s domestic clothing industry has raised the specter of serious labor abuse in factories in north-west England with relative impunity.
Last February, an environmental audit committee heard evidence of environmental and labor abuses rife in Britain’s fashion industry. Noting that the Modern Slavery Act was not enough to stop wage exploitation in UK garment factories, MPs issued a series of recommendations including requiring brands to increase transparency in their supply chains. However, the government refused to implement each of the committee’s recommendations, which also included moves to Improving environmental sustainability and limit waste.
In November 2019, a scoping survey of Greater Manchester’s textile and clothing industry, which included 182 companies operating across the region, also found evidence that workers were only being paid £3-4 an hour.
The poll conducted by Home workers worldwide, a labor rights NGO, found that the region’s textile workers were diverse, with British workers employed alongside European and other migrant workers, but that many worked in insecure environments without permanent contracts. Some of the most vulnerable workers were undocumented migrants who had little access to public support or assistance.
A worker quoted in the report described illegal labor practices at a factory: “We are paid in cash…instead of bank transfers. They give us pay stubs but they only show 16 hours a week at £7.50 an hour when we actually do a lot more hours than that…usually we work 40 hours a week from 8am to 6pm and we’re paid around £500 Month.”
Other workers interviewed for the survey say they were forced to pay part of their wages to their employer and faced demands for money in return for help applying for a passport.
The survey also highlighted small manufacturers’ concerns that they were under increasing pressure from large retailers whose purchasing practices pushed prices down to levels where they were unable to pay their workers fairly.
Last November, campaign group Labor Behind the Label said brands that source goods from factories across the UK needed to be held more accountable. It called on fast fashion brands, which source clothes from factories in Leicester, to end potential labor exploitation and increase transparency in their supply chains.
“Transparency is the first step in holding brands accountable for the conditions their workers may be subjected to,” said Meg Lewis, Labor spokesperson behind the label. A lack of accountability can create situations where truly serious labor abuse can thrive and the anecdotal evidence we have received from Leicester suggests that this is happening in the UK.”
Yesterday in the House of Commons, Business Secretary Kelly Tolhurst agreed to a meeting to discuss conditions in Leicester but said: “This is a particular sector that has been in focus; A lot of work has been done by HMRC and cross-border agencies – HMRC enforces the national living wage.”