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Leicester Garment Worker Exploitation ‘Normalized and Tolerated,’ Study Finds

Garment workers in Leicester face widespread financial precarity as a result of an “extensive spectrum” of malpractices that are “normalized and tolerated” in the British city’s textile community because of ineffective or non-existent regulatory enforcement, a new study has found.

In a survey of 116 people conducted by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab and De Montfort University between November and March, 56 percent of respondents said they were paid below minimum wage, 55 percent did not receive holiday pay and 49 percent did not receive sick pay. Just under one-third (32 percent) were issued neither payslips nor work contracts, while 24 percent said they weren’t allowed to take days off.

Some respondents felt pressured to work up to 14 hours a shift, were subjected to bullying and other forms of emotional abuse, and experienced issues with health and safety. A number noted discrepancies in what their wage slips showed and the amount they actually received. Their employers might force them to work extra, undocumented hours at a lower pay rate, they said, or even “refund” part of their paycheck in cash.

“My previous manager used to take money back once it was paid in my account. I wasn’t happy, I have told him I am not happy,” one worker said. “He said, ‘If you don’t pay then our factory will close down and you will lose your job.’ Therefore, I had no other option but to continue without a fuss until that factory closed down.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of these issues. With several factories shuttering as a result of recent market volatility, the availability of work has contracted, workers said. Interviewees also described being unemployed or that they were working but not receiving the hours that they had expected or were contracted for.

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Published Monday, the study was commissioned by the Garment and Textile Workers Trust, a board of trustees-led body that Boohoo Group helped establish amid revelations about exploitative conditions in its Leicester supply chain in 2020. The e-tail juggernaut donated 1.1 million pounds ($1.3 million) to bootstrap the organization as part of its broader Agenda for Change, which it rolled out in response to an independent review’s criticisms of “weak corporate governance” and a “focus on revenue generation” at the expense of the rights of workers.

The trust’s founding mission, the PrettyLittleThing, NastyGal and Warehouse owner said, is to employ “guidance, advocacy and remedy” to tackle “some of the immediate and future needs” of garment workers in Leicester, home to the second-highest concentration of textile producers in the United Kingdom after Manchester. Estimates suggest that up to 80 percent of the city’s garment output is destined for Boohoo Group, which inaugurated its first factory in April to serve as a “center of excellence” for manufacturing in Leicester.

“The principal motivation for Boohoo providing the start-up funding for the trust was to support the aim of the trustees in empowering workers to help eradicate any driver of exploitation,” a spokesperson said. “The independent research that [the trust has] commissioned has provided real-time post-pandemic insight into the lived experience of the those working in and around Leicester’s textile industry. We are fully behind the trust’s objectives, which do not replace or replicate the responsibility and progress that we have made in strengthening standards and oversight in our own supply chain in the city.”

The study said that the majority of the city’s garment workforce is aware of its rights regarding minimum wages, holiday pay and sick pay. The problem, however, is that most of them are unable to identify a source of support that they can trust to help them if they have concerns about rights that are being withheld. Many respondents said they felt unable to raise concerns with their employers, either because they’re frequently told nothing can be done or because they feared retaliation. A “ready supply” of vulnerable laborers, many of them immigrants with limited proficiency in the English language, provides a “further disincentive for change,” especially since workers have limited options to contest poor conditions or explore alternative employment, the report added.

Audits and other compliance measures, too, can be easily “gamed.” According to one manufacturer,  the audits are passable because they “don’t actually get into the [detail] of what’s going on in a business, they just look at the outside, the paperwork, so it’s completely possible. Not that I’ve done it. But it’s completely possible to evade the scrutiny from audits.”

Though some problems may take a “generation to resolve,” the study said, important strides can be made in the short and medium term by expanding initiatives that increase workers’ economic autonomy and promote fairer labor practices. These include improving worker access to English language instruction, providing a single “front door” contact point for workers wishing to submit complaints to enforcement agencies, and establishing trusted support to advocate for workplace rights in partnership with unions.

Other recommendations involve connecting workers with sources of community-based legal advice and support in different languages, improving access to local educational services for workers and their families, and connecting workers with employment support, training, information and advice with different avenues of work.

“Garment workers told us that they want to build a beautiful future for the next generation in Leicester, but there are currently many constraints that stop them from accessing fair pay and conditions,” said Alison Gardner, lead researcher from the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham. “Our report has added to the existing knowledge about these issues, but importantly also points to solutions suggested by workers themselves. We hope that the interventions outlined in our report can help to guide both local and national-level action in the years ahead.”