As many as 10,000 people could be working in conditions commonly associated with modern slavery in textile factories in Leicester, an investigation by Sky News has alleged.
Leicester City Council believes there to be about 1,500 textile factories across the city. Most are small businesses, essentially workshops that are housed in ageing, dilapidated buildings, such as the city’s old Imperial Typewriter factory.
The east Midlands city was put under renewed lockdown restrictions on 30 June and it is thought that working conditions at many of the textile works may have contributed to the localised outbreak of Covid-19.
It is widely suspected that many of the businesses do not pay workers the £8.72 national minimum wage.
Deputy city mayor Adam Clarke called for government action and added that the working conditions in the workshops was not so much an “open secret” as “just open.”
Leicester East MP Claudia Webbe told Sky News she had been contacted by anonymous workers who were too scared to speak out publicly because many were in the country illegally.
“Machinists are being paid £3 an hour, packers are being paid £2 an hour. That is what seems to be the standard,” she said.
North West Leicestershire MP Andrew Bridgen told the broadcaster there was a “conspiracy of silence” that had allowed factories in the city to continue to exploit workers over many years.
“The internet retailers have flourished during the Covid crisis because their competition has been shut down. So we’ve seen a huge extra demand for the products,” said Mr Bridgen. He added that there had been a “systemic failure of all the protections in Leicester that would prevent this from happening”.
The government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is investigating allegations some factories forced people to work in unsafe conditions during lockdown.
Modern slavery took many forms, said Brigden, much of it hidden, “but this type of exploitation – people being paid well under the minimum wage, having to work in unacceptable conditions – that sort of abuse has to be stamped out, it has to be examined, we have to follow the evidence and prosecute wherever possible”.
Clarke made the point that enforcement of anti-slavery laws was made more difficult by the complex network of bodies involved. He said: “There are just too many organisations, HMRC [HM Revenue & Customs], the GLAA [Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority], the HSE and others have enforcement responsibilities. There needs to be one enforcement body and that needs to be set up as quickly as possible.”
“This is a systemic issue that is borne out of poor regulation, poor legislation and exploitation at every level,” he added. “You have to ask yourself who actually has the power to change this? And that buck stops with government.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The National Crime Agency and others are looking into the appalling allegations about sweatshops in Leicester and the home secretary has been clear that anyone profiting from slave labour will have nowhere to hide.”
We have regulations but they are not being policed properly. It’s also the responsibility of consumers – if you buy an incredibly cheap t-shirt then you know someone has been exploited” – Cherie Blair, campaigner and barrister
Fast-fashion firms based in the UK have come in for increased scrutiny as sales have boomed during the lockdown amid allegations over working conditions. Quiz said it had suspended a supplier after claims that a factory in Leicester offered a worker just £3 an hour to make its clothes.
It follows a report in the Times that an undercover journalist was told by a factory making Quiz clothes she would be paid below the minimum wage.
Quiz said if the claims were accurate, they were “totally unacceptable”.
Last week, Boohoo faced criticism after a report that workers at a factory supplying goods for one of its brands could expect to be paid as little as £3.50 an hour. Boohoo has stated it is investigating its supply chain to establish where points of vulnerability exist.
The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) is one of the bodies trying to ensure regulations were being followed in factories in Leicester, initiating its investigation following concerns about how some businesses in the city have been operating before and during the localised lockdown.
It said multi-agency visits involving officers from the GLAA, Leicestershire Police, Leicester City Council, National Crime Agency, Health and Safety Executive, Leicestershire Fire and Rescue and Immigration Enforcement had been carried out within the past few weeks.
So far, it said, no enforcement had been used during the visits and officers had not yet identified any offences under the Modern Slavery Act 2015.
GLAA Head of Enforcement Ian Waterfield said: “We would also encourage the public to be aware of the signs of labour exploitation and report their concerns to us, by calling our intelligence team on 0800 4320804 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.”
According to campaigners the Medaille Trust, there are about 136,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK.
Leading human rights barrister and campaigner for women’s and workers’ rights Cherie Blair told Sky News today that not only were workers being exploited but so were taxpayers, because of the benefits paid to low paid workers. She said the Modern Slavery Act of 2015 was groundbreaking but there had been a failure to police it and toughen it up, with the government failing to give it real teeth after a review of the Act last year made 80 proposals to give it more muscle. She said since 2010 there had only been seven prosecutions of people not paying the minimum wage.
She added: “There have also not been anything like as many factory inspections as there should have been. We have regulations but they are not being policed properly. It’s also the responsibility of consumers – if you buy an incredibly cheap t-shirt then you know someone has been exploited. It is also the responsibility of companies buying products from these factories. Boohoo [which denies it has broken any law], for example, has a very nice glossy modern slavery statement but the reality of the industry is different.”