Exposing the atrocious working conditions in garment factories in Leicester shocked the nation, but this is no isolated incident: BAME labour is systemically exploited in the UK.
Leicester garment factories in the spotlight
A report by Labour Behind the Label exposed garment factories in Leicester, primarily working for online fast fashion retailer Boohoo, of heinous treatment of their workers. The workers, who are mostly from BAME communities, were paid significantly less than the minimum wage, sometimes as little as £3 per hour. Criminally low wages are reportedly a “known secret” among the factory owners in Leicester, who cite a perceived culture of impunity perpetrating such exploitation. The coronavirus outbreak in Leicester, which led to a local lockdown in late June, was in part a result of the carelessness of these very factories. According to the report, employees were ordered to continue working in unsafe conditions without any PPE – even if they were sick. Factories kept on operating throughout lockdown, and were also allegedly involved in furlough fraud. In at least one of the factories, the employer held the non-English speaking workers’ ID documents. Essentially, what was discovered in the Leicester sweatshop industry is modern slavery. The consequences go beyond the exploited workers whose lives were put at risk: the spike in coronavirus cases affects everyone in the area.
Locating the problem: beyond Leicester
Though what happened in Leicester shocks us, the abhorrent disregard for BAME lives is a part of a much larger general system of exploitation. The fast fashion industry is notorious for its use of unethical sweatshop labour, located especially in the global South. Those who work in sweatshops producing garments for fast fashion companies are generally BAME women. The underpaying, the lack of rights, employer fraud, the blackmail and intimidation – all of it illustrates the same pattern of not valuing the lives of BAME people. Racism, misogyny and socio-economic inequality all make such exploitation possible in society. We tend to blame the loose labour laws in countries like Bangladesh for sweatshops; yet, sweatshops exist here in the UK regardless of any such laws. It is about time we acknowledge not only the complacency of UK companies using and thus creating a demand for sweatshop labour in the global South, but also the fact that the UK itself hosts similar enterprises without any substantial consequences.
Interestingly, the disgraceful working conditions in the Leicester garment factories have been open knowledge long before they rose to headlines this summer. In 2019, the parliamentary environmental audit reported wage exploitation in Leicester factories and in the garment sector, but no action was taken. It was only when combined with the more widespread scandal of the pandemic spreading that genuine interest has been taken to investigate the issue, and it is yet unclear what kind of action will be taken to stop the exploitation. The crux of the issue then lies in that BAME workers and their lives must be held at high enough regard, even without a risk of a virus spreading, that they are automatically granted fair wages and safe working conditions. Unfortunately, clearly we are not there yet.
Fighting exploitation at the grassroots level
We at JAN Trust want to be a part of tackling the issue of unfair working conditions. We educate women to know their own rights in the UK to feel equipped against predatory employers. Empowering women from migrant backgrounds to become active citizens of British society through integration shields them from being abused by exploitative employers. Often immigrant labour is too easily exploited due to a low level of English language skills: in Leicester, it seems that the lockdown guidance was not adequately communicated to immigrant communities who were then extremely vulnerable at the hands of their law-breaking employers. We provide ESOL-lessons at all levels to support women from non-English speaking backgrounds in becoming confident in their communication. We also provide mentoring, advice and guidance with employment related issues among others. Everyone has the right to a life free from all exploitation and abuse.