Reports have emerged of “shocking” working conditions at clothing factories in the UK city of Leicester, which are said to have continued to operate at full capacity during lockdown primarily to sustain orders from their biggest customer, Boohoo.
According to campaign group Labour Behind the Label, workers at clothing factories in Leicester have reported serious breaches of lockdown regulations, with employees pressured to work with little to no social distancing or provision of personal protective equipment (PPE). The city has this week been placed into a second lockdown after a surge in Covid-19 cases.
The labour rights group claims many Leicester factories continued to operate at 100% capacity throughout the first nationwide lockdown, mainly due to continuing orders from online fast-fashion retailer Boohoo.
Reports claim that workers who had tested positive for Covid-19 were told to continue working in factories and were prevented from disclosing their infection to others, according to Labour Behind the Label. It adds allegations of modern slavery, furlough fraud and wage and benefit theft within Boohoo’s Leicester supply chain have also emerged.
“We have repeatedly called on Boohoo to improve labour rights in their supply chain, yet they have failed to take meaningful action,” says Meg Lewis, campaigns manager for Labour Behind the Label. “The surge in Boohoo’s profits during the Covid-19 crisis is directly linked to their disregard of responsible sourcing.”
Dominique Muller, policy director for Labour Behind the Label, adds: “As the biggest brand sourcing from Leicester, Boohoo calls the shots in the local supply chain. Government authorities must recognise that the lack of proper legislation and monitoring is endangering workers lives – it is time to ensure that workers in Leicester are protected and better practice in the garment industry respected.”
According to Labour Behind the Label, Boohoo Group has a market value of GBP4.6bn (US$5.7bn) and sources around half of its clothes from UK factories based in Leicester. However, the labour rights group says verifying working conditions in the company’s supplier factories is “very difficult due to the secrecy under which Boohoo currently operates.”
The online fashion firm’s purchasing practices have increasingly come under fire from labour rights campaigners with industry sources claiming it is “impossible” to produce goods at prices requested by Boohoo and pay the UK minimum wage, it adds.
A spokesperson for Boohoo, says: “As a group, we continue to stand alongside our suppliers, paying them promptly with industry-leading payment terms for all of their orders. Since the onset of coronavirus we have had to fundamentally change the way that we operate. Every decision we have made has had the safety and wellbeing of our people at its heart. Whilst government guidance has permitted online businesses to keep operating, we would only have continued to do so if we were confident that we could do so safely, this includes our supply chain.
“The safety and wellbeing of everyone in our supply chain is clearly very important to us which is why in addition to providing access to free PPE and sanitiser to all our suppliers we have been in close contact to provide support and ensure compliance. None of our suppliers have been affected at this time and we are pleased that our in-house compliance team have been able to resume their work. Our third party auditors are also out visiting sites this week.
“We have a strict supplier code of conduct, which at times like this are more important than ever, and we would not hesitate to take action if any standards are not met.”
The company, which reported a double-digit rise in both earnings and sales for FY2019, has this year acquired the remaining 34% stake in its PrettyLittleThing brand and snapped up the online businesses and all associated intellectual property of British women’s wear brands Oasis and Warehouse.
The city of Leicester has found itself in the spotlight in recent years, primarily because it is the base for nearly 1,480 garment and textile factories – the highest concentration in the UK – and for reports of paying workers below the minimum wage.