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Leicester’s Garment Workers Need ‘Better Deal’ From Retailers, Mayor Says

The mayor of Leicester wants fast-fashion retailers to give garment workers a “better deal.”

Peter Soulsby, in partnership with Trades Union Congress (TUC), Britain’s leading trade union federation, wrote to the bosses of Asos, Boohoo, TK Maxx, River Island, Missguided, Next and New Look Monday demanding better conditions in the beleaguered English city following allegations that “dark factories,” divorced from U.K. employment law, were promoting sweatshop wages and flouting safety regulations during the government-mandated coronavirus lockdown. One whistleblower told BBC News in July that some Leicester factories nearly doubled their staffing to cope with online orders during the quarantine.

Boohoo, which also owns PrettyLittleThing, Nasty Gal, Oasis, Karen Millen and Warehouse, has caught most of the heat, since it sources some 40 percent of its inexpensive Instagram- and TikTok-popular outfits–beloved by Gen Z and designed to copy pricier looks by celebrity influencers such as Kim Kardashian West and Cardi B–in Leicester. In turn, Boohoo items account for 75 percent of the city’s garment output.

Leicester boasts the second-highest concentration of textile manufacturers in the United Kingdom after Manchester, with 1,500 factories employing 10,000 textile workers, according to the Leicester City Council.

Asos and New Look had expressed interest in expanding their U.K.-manufacturing footprint by investing in Leicester factories but mothballed plans after a 2017 fact-finding mission uncovered “key” supply-chain issues that appeared to operate outside of legal standards.

“This is not a new problem but it has been once again highlighted by recent revelations about minimum wage violations and suggestions that working conditions in the industry may have been a catalyst for the spike in Covid-19 cases in the city,” Soulsby wrote in the open letter. “We have been working for some time to tackle this challenge but it isn’t something the local authority can solve alone, nor is it Leicester’s problem alone.”

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Soulsby and the TUC are urging retailers to help end worker exploitation in Leicester by joining them at a roundtable summit in September and signing a TUC agreement, which, if implemented, would provide “greater employment protection and security” to thousands of people.

Voluntary codes of conduct have proven to be insufficient wards against supplier misconduct, and they’re especially ineffective if they don’t actively promote freedom of association, said Lee Barron, regional secretary of TUC’s Midlands arm.

“There is only one way that these large fashion retailers can be sure that health and safety and other good employment practices are being adhered to in their supply chains and that is by insisting that they will only procure from manufacturers who recognize a trade union,” he wrote in the letter. “Trade unions will not only help and support their members but they can be a free and effective solution for an industry plagued by unethical employment practices. If retailers are serious about resolving this issue then we will gladly work with them to transform the industry and improve working conditions in factories in Leicester once and for all.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel has also appealed to Boohoo directly, writing in a letter to CEO John Lyttle Sunday that she expected the retailer to work with suppliers to ensure workers are “protected and remediated.”

“I am concerned that your response to recent reports of labor exploitation in your supply chains appears to be focused on terminating contracts with suppliers found to have breached your code of conduct, rather than on protecting vulnerable workers,” she wrote.

Patel added that she is “deeply concerned” by “any potential role the fast fashion industry may be playing in fuelling alleged criminal, inhumane and abusive practices in Leicester’s garment sector,” further noting that it’s “now more important than ever before that businesses step up and take responsibility for conditions in their supply chains.”

She asked Boohoo to review its “aggressive” buying practices, which can put undue pressure on suppliers and exacerbate exploitation, and increase the transparency of its supply chain so it can “regain public trust,” including publishing the names and addresses of its suppliers.

Lyttle himself has called upon the government to establish a “licensing scheme” that would compel all garment factories to honor their legal obligations to their employees, reset the U.K. garment industry and “provide an incentive for retailers and brands to invest.”

Boohoo has previously denied allegations of its suppliers illegally paying below minimum wage, though it noted that it has severed ties with at least two factories because of “non-compliance” with its code of conduct. It’s set to publish a roadmap for its independent supply-chain review later this week and plans to produce its initial findings sometime in September.