Skip to main content

Leicester Is Teeming With New COVID-19 Cases. Is Fast Fashion to Blame?

The English city of Leicester is experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases. Fast-fashion brands like Boohoo, which manufacture clothing within its confines, may be to blame.

At least five Leicester garment factories that reopened during Britain’s lockdown have been compelled to shutter again after outbreaks of the virus among their workers, the Mirror claimed on Monday.

“One of these factories had more than 20 cases, including the owner himself,” an unnamed source told the publication. “The owners tried to deal with it but eventually they sent their workers to be tested. This is part of the surge in cases the government is talking about.”

Compliance with quarantines, it appears, have been spotty. Workers from closed factories, seeking employment, simply moved to other facilities, the source said, adding, “that is what is spreading the disease.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Ministers of Parliament this week that lockdown easements planned for the rest of the United Kingdom on July 4 must exclude Leicester, noting that the city of 350,000 has amassed 10 percent of all positive cases in the country over the past week.

“We recommend to people in Leicester, stay at home as much as you can, and we recommend against all but essential travel to, from and within Leicester,” he said. Non-essential retail was told to close Tuesday and schools will be shutting doors to most students—barring vulnerable children and children of critical workers—from Thursday.

Labor advocates have raised concerns about working conditions in Leicester for years. Both Boohoo and fellow Instagram fave Missguided source at least half their clothes in Leicester and neighboring Manchester, where so-called “dark factories” have become so divorced from U.K. employment law that they operate as “a country within a country,” the Financial Times reported in 2018.

Related Stories

Thousands of garment workers are believed to toil in Leicester under conditions of modern slavery, including poverty wages, exploitative hours and unsafe workplaces. Speaking in February, Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, dubbed the situation Leicester’s “dirty secret,” a stain on the Made in Britain brand and a “national shame” that cannot be allowed to continue.

Boohoo hit back Thursday, however, following a recent Labour Behind the Label report that accused the brand of putting workers at risk of COVID-19 infections and fatalities amid lockdown breaches in exploitative environments that pay as little as 2 pounds ($2.50) an hour.

A Boohoo spokesperson said in a statement that the company has monitored its suppliers correctly, and that it “does not tolerate any incidence of non-compliance especially in relation to the treatment of workers within our supply chain.” Where evidence of non-compliance with its “strict code of conduct” is found, it has terminated relationships with suppliers, the spokesperson said.

Labour Behind the Label says, however, that many garment factories in Leicester continued to operate at “100 percent capacity” throughout the lockdown “due to sustained orders” from Boohoo, the biggest fashion brand sourcing from the city.

“We have reports that factories operating for Boohoo continue to operate at full capacity, with little or no social distancing and provision of [personal protective equipment] or sanitizing stations,” the labor-rights group wrote in its report. “Workers have reported that furlough fraud is commonplace and that many factories are being pressured to continue production—or even increase it—to keep up with new orders.”

Leicester has the second-highest concentration of textile manufacturers in the United Kingdom, with 1,500 factories employing 10,000 textile workers, per the Leicester City Council.