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Workers Found Sleeping in Garment Factory: ‘Really Not a Great Situation’

A counterfeit-clothing company in Leicester is reportedly doubling as illegal employee housing, raising new questions about labor conditions in the English manufacturing hub.

The revelation was part of a recent sting by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), Britain’s investigative agency for labor exploitation, which recently probed 172 facilities—a number of which were “really old buildings” in “not great” condition—after executing search warrants despite a lack of cooperation.

One facility housed five workers who were clearly sleeping there, said GLAA director Daniel Scully. “That’s not an environment where people should be overnight—it’s not a residential place, it’s full of paint, chemicals [and] screen-printing equipment,” he told BBC News. “Where workers are being kept on the premises, that’s really not a great situation for anyone to be in.”

Scully said the agency is “working through a list” of factories, based on a mix of intelligence gathering and whistle blowing, to uncover health and safety violations, such as a lack of precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“We’ve also found some allegations of suppressed earnings, where workers are actually doing more hours than the books would show,” he said. “[There are] also some suggestions that money is being clawed back from workers, so on the paper records they will look like they’ve been paid the right amount, but some of that money has made it back to the company.”

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The GLAA also uncovered evidence that factory owners were shuttering their businesses only to reopen them under different names—a practice known as “phoenixing.” Though the agency hasn’t closed any of the factories it inspected, Scully said some owners may face criminal charges.

The fact that authorities are on the case has had “an affect,” he added.

“There are more factories paying the minimum wage, [and] we know particularly now that as we’ve moved to different tactics, including executing warrants, that that will also cause factory owners who aren’t compliant to think twice about the conditions that they’re subjecting their workers to,” Scully said.

Investigators have been dropping in on garment factories in the city as part of Operation Tacit, which GLAA, Leicestershire Police and Immigration Enforcement launched over the summer following allegations of exploitative and unsafe work conditions that arose in Leicester amid a localized spike in the number of Covid-19 cases.

“No one should have to work in an unsafe environment, feel forced or coerced into doing so, nor have their labour exploited,” Ian Waterfield, head of enforcement at GLAA, said in a statement in August. “Exploiting vulnerable workers for commercial gain will not be tolerated and there is a concerted multi-agency drive to tackle it robustly. We also want to support those legitimate businesses who are complying with the law and treating their workers fairly.”

The controversy thrust fast-fashion e-tailer Boohoo, whose affordable, Gen Z-beloved tube tops, bodycon dresses and similarly cheap-and-chic fare account for 75 percent of clothing production in Leicester, into the spotlight, sparking a sequence of events that sent its market value into free fall, called environmental, social and governance ratings in question, led its long-time auditor to resign, drew attention to “widespread if not endemic” issues in its supply chain, and dragged its chairman in front of a U.K. parliamentary inquiry.

“I want to make Leicester right, I promise you,” Boohoo boss Mahmud Kamani told the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee last month.