Forced labour in Leicester’s garment industry

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The appalling exploitation of garment workers uncovered in Leicester shows the need for robust legislation, writes Ryna Sherazi.

Image by Remy Gieling via Unsplash

30 October 2020

In June 2020, the Labour Behind the Label campaign group published its evidence on conditions in some of Leicester’s garment factories. The report exposed Dickensian working conditions, where people making clothes primarily for online retailer Boohoo were being paid as little as £2.50 per hour – the national minimum wage is currently £9.30 – and given no adequate protection from Covid-19.

The following month, Anti-Slavery International, along with a number of organisations, sent a letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel calling for urgent government action to ensure that workers are protected from unscrupulous employers, and for brands to ensure that they are sourcing their garments responsibly. The government has since promised an investigation. While we welcome the announcement, we and our partners will keep up the pressure to ensure that the investigation:

  • Identifies and addresses the root causes of people becoming exploited in illegal working conditions.
  • Presents meaningful solutions, such as legislation that ensures companies cannot exploit workers in the sort of conditions highlighted in Leicester this summer.
  • Defines clear roles for government agencies to enforce labour laws and take action when labour laws are not followed.

While the world is responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, Anti-Slavery International is increasingly advising businesses and governments about the need to ensure that workers are protected, and that any high-demand sectors, such as food, personal protective equipment (PPE) and logistics, do not use the pandemic as an excuse to exploit and put people at risk.

Anti-Slavery International calls on the UK government for a systemic reform of purchasing practices and underlying business models to promote sustainable production and livelihoods. This includes reasonable deadlines and planning so that workers are not expected to produce goods in unfeasible timeframes, fair payment, and fully costed pricing. Doing so would eliminate irresponsible outsourcing and reduce the risk of forced labour in a company’s supply chains.

Legislation must also be introduced that has serious penalties for businesses failing to comply and ensures compensation for exploited workers. This legislation should outline the responsibility of businesses to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for human rights abuses across all of their supply chains.

Inspections of working conditions must be better resourced so that we can identify unsafe working conditions and ensure that all workers are supported and protected. And legislation must be more robust and properly enforced. Only then will we start to see the end of exploitation of people in forced labour, like that seen recently in the heart of the UK.

  • Ryna Sherazi is Anti-Slavery International’s Head of Fundraising and Communications