Modern slavery: a prism into our world

“Although the Covid-19 crisis has caused grim new problems for Leicester’s garment workers, the exploitation detailed in the report is not new. Concerns about working conditions and illegally low pay in Leicester’s factories have been subject to press investigations, and even the focus of government reports. Yet there has been little meaningful action to tackle these issues, or the social and economic inequalities that allow exploitation and poor business practices to take place”.

                                                        Meg Lewis, Campaigns Manager at Labour Behind the Label, June 2020

“Two of the UK ‘s most prominent fast fashion retailers have spoken out against working conditions in some Leicester textile factories, which are reportedly preventing the return of overseas manufacturing. They warned that a potential resurgence in the country‘s manufacturing industry, amid a concerted push to fortify domestic output amid Brexit, could be halted due to “sweatshop practices”. Anders Kristiansen, who said earlier this month that UK factories had poorer working conditions than Bangladesh, told The Telegraph it was a “ticking time bomb””.

                                                                                          Retail Gazette, August 2017

Events in Leicester reveal so much about the society we are and the society we need to become. And in particular whether there needs to be better common rules for public and economic behaviour or a free for all. 


Credit: Kai Pilger

If you have watched the news or read a newspaper recently you will know modern slavery and sweatshops in Leicester have been in the headlines. A report by Labour Behind The Label claimed staff in sweatshops were being forced to work during the pandemic, even when reporting symptoms of Covid-19, in unsafe conditions. Depending on which paper you read or political party you follow you may have heard:  

  • A negligent city council has turned a politically correct blind eye to this practice, and this has now led to a spike in Covid-19.
  • Successive cuts to the HSE (Health and Safety Executive), police and local government combined  with the government’s decision to reject all of the EAC (Environmental Audit Committee) select committee recommendations for improving the fast fashion industry, left city council relatively powerless and has created a situation where unscrupulous employers are able to exploit workers many of whom are migrants.
  • This is just the latest manifestation of our failing economic system that puts profit before people and sees any sought of regulation as an attack on free market liberty.
  • The machinery of government, particularly the split between local and national government, makes it difficult for a rapid effective response to such problems as no one agency is in charge.
  • BooHoo Directors are on course for a 150 million bonus.
  • There are up to 10,000 modern slaves in Leicester working in garment factories.
  • As a result of the media coverage of this, BooHoo share prices dropped by 1.5 Billion.

In 2015 The Ethical Trading Initiative commissioned the Center for Sustainable Work and Employment Futures of the University of Leicester to research and write a report on the growing UK garment & textile industry.  The report focuses on Leicester and found that at the time most workers earned around £3 per hour (compared to a then National Minimum Wage of £6.50). It also highlighted that workers (mostly from migrant communities) were being subjected to verbal abuse, bullying, threats and humiliation as well as inadequate health and safety standards.

Given, that numerous reports have highlighted these issues, why are sweatshops apparently still thriving in Leicester? What are the issues that have got in the way of the government, city council and various regulation and law enforcement agencies working together to put a stop to modern slavery in Leicester? I would suggest:

How much do you regulate? It is easy to forget that there are people in politics who feel regulation and health and safety has gone mad. You need to allow business to use common sense to run and regulate itself especially if you want to remain competitive in a global market. As Chris Grayling said in 2012, when he was the employment minister: “If we try to legislate out all risk, we will lose jobs to other places.”

Enforcement. Closely linked to regulation it is one thing to have rules and, safety nets but they need to be enforced. It seems that getting our politicians to agree on how best we do this is far from easy. Even when they do agree the machinery of government and need for various agencies to agree actions makes operational management and ownership cumbersome and many would argue not fit for purpose.

Cuts. Closely linked to the above, cuts to the budgets of local government and agencies like the HSE means the risks of rogue factories being inspected are reduced.

Poverty. Study after study shows that the poor are getting poorer. A lack of viable safety nets, sanctions and no recourse to benefits create conditions sweatshop owners can exploit.

Globalisation. Factories are competing for contracts with global purchasers who are looking for the cheapest price. Jobs can be moved from country to country and pressure is put on factories to undercut each other. Alongside this multinational companies are often seemingly more powerful than governments and able to influence and bend rules as well as avoiding paying tax.

Immigration. Poverty and conflict drives people to seek a better life elsewhere. In the “developed” world many of low paid jobs are carried out by migrants who may not know their rights, speak the language that well or have access to information and support networks. Some have noted that often a crackdown on sweatshops, leads to deportation of illegal migrants but not a crackdown on the illegal practices within the supply chain.

Decline of trade unions. If we do not have trade unions in workplaces how do we ensure staff will be looked after? Compare the UK with Germany and other developed economies where trade unions are valued by business and seen as having a key role to play in keeping staff safe and building links with management    

Racism and sexism. Most people working in these sweatshops are poor immigrant women. Would the response be different if this were happening to white men in Guildford? Is this a blatant case of Black lives appearing to matter less than white lives and of women being undervalued and underpaid in the workplace?  

Greed. It is an emotional word but there does seem to be a small group of people whose motivation is getting rich, staying rich and sharing as little as possible. Talk of purpose, corporate social responsibility and shared vision is an anathema to these people. So, expecting them to do the right thing, self-regulate and ensure their workers are treated fairly is sadly as naïve as expecting a wolf to teach courses on the virtues of veganism.

Consumer behaviour. We are living in an age of rampant consumerism. If people want to purchase a new outfit for a fiver, then we all know somewhere along the supply chain, people are being exploited. Politicians are often weary of appearing to challenge voters “freedom to choose” even if it leads to exploitation of others.

Local Politics. Leicester city is a Labour stronghold with only one non-Labour councillor and three Labour MP’s. The effective lack of opposition as in all such “one party” states means that a lot of the discussion and debate takes place amongst the relatively small group of activists who decide policy. The council does reach out but perhaps the lack of real political challenge means issues can get left on the back burner longer than might be the case in a city where there is greater representation of other parties and chances of power changing. 

Acceptance. Despite all the historical coverage of sweatshops in Leicester and allegations of up to 10,000 modern day slaves working in them. There does not appear to have been a wide spread sustained moral outrage or locally focused political campaign to end modern day slavery.  Various reports have highlighted the issues and after some debate the sweatshops continue. How can such widespread human rights abuses not have been a burning issue that filled the local if not the national media with story after story, as local politicians sought to right this wrong? Sarah O’Connor writing in the FT about her experience of uncovering modern slavery in Leicester alleged:

“A local official in Leicester warned me in 2018 that, if I published my story, I would cause mass unemployment for people with no other options. In fact, nothing changed. After publication, I was invited to testify at a parliamentary select committee hearing into the costs of online fast fashion. The government rejected every one of the committee’s recommendations.”

Disclosure time, until recently I lived bang in the middle of Belgrave, one of the areas of Leicester where this practice was rife. I was married in Belgrave community centre; my daughter went to the local primary school. My mother-in-law who spent a lifetime packing crisps for Walkers recently died in Asra House care home in Belgrave. I think I can say I have a pretty good knowledge of the area and people who live there. I was reasonably politically active in my community but cannot recall this ever being a big issue in local politics. In truth when I started to walk up Belgrave road each night it often felt like I was in a different world to the city where I worked. It was open knowledge that cash in hand work and sweatshops operated. It was almost as if Belgrave were a city within a city that could get on with things in its own way. I find myself asking why beyond a few tweets and occasional question or rant at a community meeting I did not do more to raise my concerns about what I knew was happening.

If I, as a reasonably educated professional who has a pretty good grounding in local politics and community development, just accepted this, why should I have expected anybody else to really do anything. Which leads me to the key point I wish to make: we all allow this to happen.

If we stopped to think, we would work out outfits for a fiver are not made without someone being badly ripped off. Yet we go along with it. Some have convenient myths or racist stereotypes to explain this: ‘The people being exploited are not really being exploited they are working cash in hand’,  ‘If our country did not do this another one would, and we would end up with more unemployed’, ‘They must not be being that exploited, or they would not go to work every day’, ‘Compared to where they come from this is luxury so why complain they do not’.

Could it be that these people being exploited lack voice and representation? A local councillor or MP might find themselves doing a lot more work to support a zebra crossing being put near a school of organised parents, than responding to the needs of exploited modern day slaves. Many of whom may struggle communicating in English, will not belong to a trade union are weary of officialdom and lack internet access.

Yet, anyone who has worked or lived in the affected areas of Leicester will know they are not populated by victims, but vibrant and creative communities who against all the odds make a success of their lives. Jump forward a few generations and the children of textile workers have, degrees, professional jobs and have moved to the city suburbs. In short, these people are a huge resource who bring much to the city and who if supported could contribute even more.

If our local politicians said enough is enough and worked together, it could end. Yes, there would be hassle and red tape, but a concentrated campaign that said modern slavery is wrong and it must end, could lead to government working with local council, business and community to end these illegal working practices. A working group of MP’s, Mayor, councillors, police and crime commissioner, community, business leaders and academic experts could lead and steer this effort. Pull in Gary Lineker for the “Rashford” effect and government would be hard pushed to ignore the case for change.

We also know that studies carried out during the pandemic show that as we move on from the lockdown people want a fairer, more just and green society. The huge drop in the value of BooHoo shares suggest that investors as well as the public are ready for change.

We could be innovative and connect the skills and expertise of the workers we liberate with the expertise of the many honest textile factory owners in our city to build a textile industry, that pioneers sustainable practice and worker participation. From the ashes of this shame we could build a standard bearer of locally owned business, which benefits the community and shows to the world what a united Leicester can achieve. We could insist companies like BooHoo redirect some of their 150 million pound bonus to the growth of this start up. The PR and goodwill surrounding such an enterprise and its connections with the Green New Deal ethos of our post pandemic times could make it a winner. Imagine Leicester City running out onto the pitch in shirts made from a local ethical supplier.

Impossible, you say? Well Leicester city won the premier league? It can be and must be done, let us use this moment to harness all that local skill and talent and #BuildBackBetter.

#TogetherWeCan do this.

Kieran Breen is the CEO of Leicestershire Cares and lectures in global issues and young people at De Montfort University.

*Below is a list of news coverage and resources on the Leicester ‘sweatshop’ scandal.

News coverage

Reports and research

Mayors letter to EAC


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