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Life on the Line: UK Garment Workers Face Fatal Covid Risks

The Covid-19 pandemic has claimed millions of lives, especially in developing countries and underserved communities. Now, data has revealed that female garment workers in the U.K. face a heightened risk of perishing from the virus compared with their peers across the nation.

The Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) breakdown of Covid-19-related deaths by age and occupation in England and Wales between early March and late December 2020 points to women in the garment sector dying at a disproportionate rate.

During the period of study, 7,961 deaths were attributed to the coronavirus in the working-age regional population, which includes individuals between 20-64 years. Two-thirds of deaths (5,128) were men, many in “elementary occupations” like stocking, cleaning, collecting garbage and sweeping streets. But among the 2,833 female deaths, “process, plant and machine operatives” were the most prevalent.

Among those occupations, “assemblers and routine operatives had the highest rate” of deaths, ONS wrote. Twenty-one deaths—a rate of 39.2 deaths per 100,000—were reported among women in “jobs such as sewing machinists.”

“Because of the small numbers of deaths, we were unable to reliably look at specific occupations among assemblers and routine operatives,” who work in factories and plants, it wrote, indicating that the true number of sewers involved in the count is unknown. Women working in “caring, leisure and other service occupations” had the second-highest rate of death, at about 27 per 100,000.

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The bulk of the country’s garment industry is centered in a handful of hubs, the largest being in the county town of Leicester in the East Midlands, says U.K.-based advocacy group Labour Behind the Label (LBL). Home to between 1,000 and 1,500 garment factory units, the area has been the subject of a flurry of media reports detailing illegal labor practices and safety concerns—especially amid the pressures of the pandemic.

The continued spread of the coronavirus has only exacerbated unfavorable conditions, LBL said of the ONS data. Women working in garment factories are four times more likely to die of Covid-19 than women in any other occupation, it added, and those in sewing machinist roles have the highest mortality rate across the U.K. This cohort has seen an average of 64.8 deaths per 100,000, while the average death rate for working-age women is just 16.8 per 100,000.

“This stark statistic does not come as a surprise to labor rights advocates,” it wrote. According to LBL, the “vast majority” of the U.K.’s garment industry workforce is made up of female minorities, and about one-third of them were born outside of the country. Public Health England’s data also shows that death rates have been highest among Black and Asian ethnic groups.

LBL said these oft-forgotten groups have been subjected to unsafe working conditions throughout the Covid crisis, with independent investigations showing that some factories, including Boohoo’s Leicester-based suppliers, “operated throughout the lockdowns with no social distancing measures in place.” An explosive LBL report in July said the Instagram influencer-beloved label’s workers were told by managers to return to work after testing positive for Covid-19. They also said factory owners failed to offer personal protective equipment or sanitizing stations to slow the virus’ spread.

Following the summer expose, Priti Patel, Britain’s home secretary, called for the National Crime Agency to investigate Leicester’s clothing factories for the alleged illegal practices, sending Boohoo’s shares plummeting. But by the holiday season, all seemed to be forgiven in the eyes of consumers whose love of fashion seemed to cast any labor concerns by the wayside. During the period spanning September through December, sales skyrocked by 40 percent to 661 million pounds ($902.2 million).

According to LBL, Boohoo’s pre-tax profits ballooned by 51 percent year over year during the pandemic. “This is not a coincidence,” it wrote, as Boohoo increased its orders amid widespread retail shutdowns that left a wide-open playing field for digitally native players. Some factories nearly doubled their staff, it wrote, making social distancing impossible. “Boohoo’s prosperity throughout the pandemic is intrinsically linked with the exploitative labor practices which have left workers underpaid and exposed to Covid-19,” LBL wrote.

“This failure to protect workers takes place within an industry which capitalizes on workers’ fears of retribution or job loss, leaving workers afraid to speak out,” it added, and has directly contributed to the disproportionate rise in deaths in the garment sector.

Amid growing concerns around its factories’ labor practices, Boohoo has instructed Leicester garment suppliers to cease subcontracting and solely stick to in-house production, BBC reported last week, based on company documents it reviewed that applied a March 5 deadline for manufacturers to comply with the new mandate. Some suppliers, BBC added, said the directive is likely to negatively affect garment jobs.