Saturday, July 04, 2020

Covid-19 spike turns eyes to Leicester's garment trade

The surge in the number of people in Leicester with Covid-19 has drawn fresh attention to the city's garment manufacturers.

In his United Kingdom Labour Market Enforcement Strategy 2018/19 David Metcalf, the government's director of labour market enforcement, wrote of an:
unenviable reputation for lack of compliance, both with labour market regulations and others such as health and safety, payment of tax, etc. This has been highlighted a number of times in the national press, and raises questions of why this has not been more proactively tackled by the enforcement agencies.
Now the campaign group Labour Behind the Label has produced a report on the links between these poor working conditions and Covid-19:
Emerging evidence indicates that conditions in Leicester’s factories, primarily producing for Boohoo, are putting workers at risk of COVID-19 infections and fatalities. 
Factories in Leicester are no stranger to illegal working conditions, with numerous reports over the years showing low pay – as little as £3 – and blatant intimidation of vulnerable workers. Now however, emerging evidence indicates that conditions in Leicester’s factories, primarily producing for Boohoo, are putting workers at risk of COVID-19 infection and fatality as some factories have remained open for production during the lockdown, whilst others are now re-opening. 
The Financial Times has a long article on the problem by Sarah O'Connor, in which she interviews David Metcalfe:
Metcalf tells me the UK government enforces labour law too lightly overall: "The amazing thing is how many firms comply, because you haven’t got enough enforcement resources and the fines are too low." 
He says the average employer can expect an HMRC inspection once every 500 years, based on current statistics. 
He has recommended higher fines and new "joint responsibility" rules, where companies would be named if they failed to sort out non-compliance in their supply base.
Until the government takes action on this culture of noncompliance, things will not improve in Leicester or anywhere else.

1 comment:

Phil Beesley said...

We need to consider whether our eyes are being averted from other other reasons for the Leicester outbreak. As the excellent reports have commented, dreadful environments in rag trade factories have been an "open secret" for years. Thus I welcome the recent focus on employee exploitation.

However the demographics of those testing positively for Covid-19, largely in the so-called pillar two tests, are not those of garment trade workers. Men in the age range 19-40 and under 19s are less likely to work in sewing shops, rather more likely to be employed at warehouses or in food preparation/packing on the outskirts of Leicester or in the county beyond. There certainly needs to be serious testing of the mostly women in the sewing shops -- which requires some cultural barriers to be overcome -- to be better informed. Similarly, we need to know more about conditions where younger men are employed.

Who is responsible to factory conditions, given that the clothing industry seems so poor at regulating itself? Minimum wage compliance is an HMRC responsibility so central government is responsible for underpayment and even a possible loss in tax revenue. Safety is split between HSE inspectors and those employed by the city council, plus the fire service. Conservative politicians should be careful when pointing fingers at the local authority.