A report from the University of Bath, titled ‘What happened after the Boohoo scandal?’, used interviews with workers, manufacturers and civil society representatives in Leicester, UK to hear their experiences after the closure of hundreds of manufacturing sites following a 2020 BBC Panorama investigation.
The researchers conducted interviews in the summer of 2023, with one former supplier stating: “Companies like Boohoo can escape the consequences even after being exposed. They fail to pay a sustainable amount that will enable manufacturers to provide fair wages.
“Consequently, well-intentioned exposés, such as the Boohoo scandal, do not truly assign responsibility for those left behind, for those who bear the brunt of such industry-altering events. Brands merely shift their production to locations where cheap labour is readily available.”
Funded by UKTI, the report claims that thousands of people, often vulnerable South Asian migrants, have been left without work during the cost-of-living crisis as a result of Boohoo’s decision to move its manufacturing out of Leicester.
In response to allegations in 2020, the UK government launched ‘Operation Tacit’. It concluded that while there were no signs of modern slavery at the factories, there were issues around low pay and worker health and safety.
Professor Vivek Soundararajan, report author and researcher at the University of Bath’s school of management, said: “Allegations of modern slavery, which were unfounded, obscured the root causes of worker exploitation, including manipulative procurement by fast fashion brands and lack of labour law regulation.”
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The news comes shortly after a further BBC Panorama investigation alleged that Boohoo staff had pressured suppliers to drive down prices, even after deals had been agreed.
The researchers argue that this latest investigation shows that the changes made in 2020 were “face-saving” and “surface deep”.
Co-author Dr Pankhuri Agarwal, who conducted research in Leicester for the report, said: “Framing it as a crime control and prevention issue meant Boohoo was able to distance itself from allegations of modern slavery by pulling out of Leicester or making only superficial business changes.
“Meanwhile the workers and some manufacturers, who are meant to be the motivating force in modern slavery measures, lost their livelihoods and are left with even fewer choices than before.”
In response to the report, a spokesperson from Boohoo told Just Style: “It is widely acknowledged that there have been significant improvements in standards across the Leicester garment manufacturing industry in recent years.
“We’re proud of the role our Agenda for Change programme has played in driving the industry forward and we continue to work constructively with our suppliers to make sure the people who make our clothes have their rights in the workplace protected.”
The report is part of a four-year research project exploring dignity in the workplace in the UK and India’s garment and software development industries.
Last year, a number of garment manufacturers in Leicester filed for insolvency as fast fashion retailers seek supply from South Asia instead.
The researchers suggest the UK government incentivises brands to locate their manufacturing sites in the UK and penalise both brands and employers using exploitative business models.
The government is also urged to take further steps to protect migrant workers, including offering certification courses for machinists without formal training and free courses on English for speakers of other languages in factories.