Crisis leaves fast-fashion’s image in rags
A series of disjointed regulations have allowed Leicester’s sweatshops to slip through the net amid sector’s boom,
‘After the crisis, to revitalise the economy, ministers cut back health and safety inspections’
‘Boohoo has been thriving as one of the few brands to see sales jump during the pandemic’
Until a week ago, some people may have thought that underpaid workers and insalubrious garment factories were either a thing of the past or limited to far-flung places. Yet the clothing sweatshops in the English city of Leicester are at the centre of a fresh string of allegations surrounding fast-fashion firms such as Boohoo and now Quiz.
What is worse is that none of it is new. A little over a year ago, the Government rejected all nine recommendations to help end the throwaway nature of fast-fashion.
Mary Creagh, a Labour MP and chair of the environmental audit committee, said in 2019 it had presented evidence that “garment workers in this country [are] criminally underpaid”.
The select committee report, in turn, was partly triggered by a flurry of media reports in recent years, including an expose in the Financial
Times, highlighting poor working conditions in Leicester.
The University of Leicester conducted its own research exposing sweatshop labour in the garment industry. In 2015, one of its conclusions was: “The majority of workers in Leicester’s garment sector earn around £3 per hour, receive wages cash in hand and do not hold an employment contract.”
The findings put local authorities in an uncomfortable position. Taking a tough stance, coupled with the negative publicity surrounding unethical trading, could put firms off.
Prof Jonathan Davies, at De Montfort University in Leicester, referred to the following vignette, from a local official, in a 2018 study about austerity, including its effects on the sweatshop economy in Leicester: “There are enforcement rules we could potentially use but they’re counter-productive … It’s about education of the sector. But again, you’ve got to be very politically sensitive about that … because when you’re looking to pull businesses … you’ve got to be careful. You don’t want to put them off coming into the city if you’ve got a negative perception.”
After the financial crisis, in a bid to revitalise the economy, ministers cut back health and safety inspections to allow a new breed of business owners to flourish, so breaches became more difficult to spot. Then, there is the issue of central government versus local authorities. While the latter are responsible for building safety, enforcing health and safety and the minimum wage fall in the camp of the former. Moreover, factories in Leicester can under-report hours, according to employees, with workers seemingly paid a correct wage, which makes irregularities less obvious for the taxman. A minimum wage inspection on an ad-hoc basis from HMRC is even rarer.
Last year, however, the Government said HMRC and other enforcement agencies were taking a more proactive approach, with an increase in budget and officers dedicated to the national minimum wage enforcement.
So why has the injustice in Leicester only just started to cut through now? Last month, Labour Behind the Label, a campaign group, alleged that some of Boohoo’s suppliers, which were allowed to stay open, had contributed to the spread of the infection. The claims coincided with Leicester going into local lockdown. The retailer denies this and has said all its practices are in
line with the law. It does not publish a full list of suppliers; rival Primark, which has also been criticised over the years for its treatment of suppliers, meanwhile, does. Boohoo has also been thriving as one of the few brands to see sales jump during the pandemic.
Its advantage, often a thorn in the side of competitors such as Asos, has been its flexible domestic supply chain. Almost half of Boohoo’s wares are manufactured in the UK, so it was able to swiftly switch from making bodycon dresses to loungewear in lockdown. Other retailers have had to contend with mountains of unsold stock or shipping containers stuck at ports with unsuitable clothes.
So while fast-fashion itself is under the microscope, there is a broader question around the processes and laws, or lack thereof, that have allegedly led to illegal wages and poor working conditions in the
Quiz, Boohoo and Primark have all faced scrutiny over their suppliers