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‘We Can’t Eat, We Can’t Feed Ourselves’: Leicester’s Garment Workers Have Had Enough

Leicester's garment manufacturers are notorious for allegations of modern slavery and dangerous working conditions. Sick of their mistreatment at the hands of factory bosses, workers are organising to demand an end to their exploitation.

Garment workers rally in Leicester in protest against exploitative employment and job losses.

Once the richest city in the UK thanks to its booming garment industry, many of Leicester’s factories now lay empty. Following the departure of big fashion brands in recent years, garment workers have been laid off or had their hours cut by up to 70 percent, and are left facing hunger and homelessness. Against a backdrop of exploitation and allegations of fraud and modern slavery, one community is speaking out. 

Over 500 people rallied on Sunday 1 October, in a display of solidarity against a garment industry that has forced workers into poverty and exploitation. Garment workers, mainly women, came together to demand better pay and conditions from factory bosses. After assembling at Spinney Hill Park, protestors called on big fashion brands to support factories in the city and to ensure that all workers are paid the National Living Wage.

The group came together to send a direct message to factory owners and big fashion brands: ‘We want decent work’. The rally’s organisers, Labour Behind the Label, say they aim to highlight the exploitation workers face and to lobby the Government for intervention, either by holding fashion brands accountable for the exploitation in their supply chains or by making new legislation to protect workers in the garment industry. 

In a sector that has proven stubbornly difficult to unionise owing to insecure and sometimes illegal employment practices and a high density of migrant workers, organising workers to raise awareness and make clear their demands is seen as a first step to achieving change.

Abandoned Workers

Dominique Muller, Policy Director at Labour Behind the Label, said, ‘At the moment, what we’re seeing is a lot of fashion brands pulling out of Leicester, despite a lot of good work that’s taken place in the last few years.’ 

Three years ago, a Sunday Times investigation into the garment industry led to uncovering abysmal pay and conditions in Leicester. Following allegations that workers in BooHoo’s factories were paid as little as £3.50 an hour and that Covid health and safety laws were routinely flouted, contributing to local outbreaks, the brand’s value plummeted by £1.1 billion. In the same year, its bosses received bonuses worth £150m.

The company has since reported a pre-tax loss of £91 million for 2022, which it claims has been brought on by the cost of living crisis. The fashion giant cut its ties with dozens of suppliers in the city, and other big brands have also pulled their contracts with local factories in favour of moving production abroad.

The decision to offshore manufacturing jobs has meant that workers in Leicester East have been laid off or had their hours cut by more than 70 percent, resulting in families relying on foodbank, resorting to selling their positions, and a lingering threat of homelessness.

Muller continued, ‘Workers tell us that they don’t have enough money to buy food or school clothes. Food bank usage has rapidly increased — and factories are all without orders. What we want now is to make sure that brands accept that they are the ones responsible for this.’

Endemic Exploitation

From the 19th to 20th century, Leicester was the wealthiest city in the UK and the second richest in Europe due to its booming garment industry, and it is still home to the largest concentration of garment workers in the UK. 

It only takes a drive through Leicester’s city centre to notice the factory buildings — some abandoned, some partially running, and others renovated into pricey shabby-chic flats. The buildings that have been maintained and turned into private housing have been stripped of their history, the only tell-tale signs of their previous life being the exposed brick and high ceilings. 

But, if you travel beyond the outskirts of the city centre, past the old factories, to Leicester East, you’ll find a community that has been repeatedly exploited by factory owners and big fashion brands. Incomes in Leicester East are a third less than the national average in England, with over 40 percent of children living in poverty.

Speaking about how being laid off has affected her family, one woman told Tribune, ‘Around five years ago, people from India moved and worked for £3 to £4 a day — and people are still working like that. We are living in really bad conditions. We can’t eat, we can’t feed ourselves. We are having to claim benefits, but we can’t manage [to pay] for the gas and electricity bills. We are drained. It’s a very difficult time.’ 

During the pandemic, female garment workers had the highest rate of Covid fatality in the UK. According to a report from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), workers feared for their health and the health of their families. According to witnesses, some workers tried to speak out but were intimidated out of raising their concerns to people visiting the sites. 

The CSJ found that women, some of whom had Covid-19 symptoms, were instructed to work in overcrowded buildings without proper ventilation or hygiene measures by factory owners. In the years since, working conditions have worsened. 

Another woman said, ‘Before Covid, the situation was much better, but since then, the situation has become worse and worse. They make us do trials to “show our experience”, sometimes for five hours or more, and we don’t get paid.’

She continued, ‘There are five members in our family, only one person gets work, and sometimes that’s 10-15 hours a week. We used to work 45 hours [a week]. It’s a real struggle here. There is poverty. We are using local food banks as well. So it’s a very difficult situation.’ 

As a result of allegations of exploitation and modern slavery in Leicester, a multi-department investigation called Operation Tacit was launched. Despite uncovering abuses ranging from health and safety breaches to the non-payment of the National Minimum Wage, investigators concluded there was insufficient evidence of modern slavery. 

The investigators looked at 215 sites and found appalling working conditions, with many paid as little as £3 a day — 71 percent less than the National Living Wage. However, women at the rally said they were aware that factories had used fake payslips in the past, showing inflated wages and claimed, and described an ‘environment of fear’ for workers to speak to people visiting the sites. 

Getting Organised

A factory owner attending the rally attempted to address the crowd, many of whom were current or ex-employees of his. Attempts to speak continued until an older lady stepped forward and refused to let him continue. Responding to him, she shared her experience of working in a garment factory. Following her were many other women who stepped forward, spurred on by her bravery. 

One of the women responded to the factory owner, saying, ‘I am getting £5 an hour. These women here are hard workers. We start at 8 am, drop our children off at school, pick them up from school, do long shifts, and we get £5. The government needs to open its eyes and see the situation here. They need to bring changes here to the garment industries in Leicester.’

Speaking to Tribune about the impact on her family, another woman said, ‘The income is low and the costs are high. We cannot afford basic necessities, which is causing a lot of tension in the household and our families. There is a lot of pressure. There’s a lot of stress, and that’s causing depression. Our family is not good at the moment.’

When asked if the women had been scared to attend the rally or speak about their working conditions, the question was met with a chorus of ‘No’s’. Each woman explained to me that they were no longer scared to speak out because of the support they have from one another, from the community and because of how bad their situation is becoming.

When asked what needs to happen next, the women said, ‘Work. That’s the most important thing that we want. We want work. We don’t want to rely on government benefits. We don’t want to rely on [the] food bank; we don’t want to stay here in poverty. We want proper work, legal work. We want long-term contracts, we want fixed hours, we want National Minimum Wage, we want all the workers’ rights that every other worker in Leicester is getting, except for the garment industry. That’s what we want.”