A second wave of Covid-19 infections in Leicester, leading to the reimposition of lockdown in the city, has momentarily drawn public attention to the city’s flourishing sweatshop industry – an industry that serves several major clothing brands.
Most of the time the gangmasters can get on with the business of superexploiting sweated labour uninterrupted, safe in the knowledge that there will always be an insatiable demand for their cheap-labour product from the ‘respectable’ end of the fashion market.
After all, several exposes in the British media, including a detailed investigation in the Financial Times two years ago, have signally failed to lead to any change in the situation, which sees workers being paid anywhere from £3 to £5 an hour for long hours in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Indeed, the FT article made it clear that all the relevant authorities (councillors, MPs, health and safety bodies, HMRC etc), both locally and nationally were well aware of what was going on but consistently turned a blind eye.
And so, the long and winding supply lines that stretch anonymously from slave-labour hellholes in Leicester and Burnley to the shelves and catalogues of premium fashion retailers are, for most of the time, successfully shrouded in mystery. Now, though, fears that the overcrowded, overworked and underpaid sweatshop workers could, in addition to generating fabulous profits for fashion giants, also be incubating and spreading disease, have suddenly sparked panic in the slumbering regulators and complicit fashion houses.
In the nineteenth century the overcrowded and unsanitary hovels housing the wage-slaves of capital were of little concern to the authorities, until it transpired that cholera did very well indeed in these conditions – a disease which did not spare even the ‘great and good’ further up the hill. This fact wonderfully concentrated the bourgeois mind and added impetus to the movement for housing and hygiene reform.
Similarly in the present case, the working conditions of migrant workers aroused little interest or sympathy before suspicions arose of a link between the sweatshops and the spread of covid, throwing a scare into fashion retailers and public regulators alike.
Boohoo, online purveyor of eccentric and disposable fashion tat, froze in its tracks when suspicions were voiced about its dependence on dubious sweatshop production lines. Retailers like Next, Asos and Very hastily suspended their relationship with the company, which saw its valuation shrink by £1.5bn in two days – all of them happy enough to find a scapegoat to distract attention from their own supply lines.
And for a brief moment the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) went into overdrive, visiting more than 20 factories and companies.
But as a GLAA source told the Guardian: “It’s quite difficult. We need to have evidence of a crime to get through the door.” The source added that every one of the site visits conducted by the body since the story broke had been with the prior consent of the factory owner.
Moreover, it seems that as one sweatshop vanishes, two more pop up, making a mockery of regulation. The Guardian notes: “Sixty-eight clothing companies have been registered in Leicester since the first lockdown began, many of which appear to have links to existing or defunct manufacturing firms in the city.” (Leicester factory put lives at risk during lockdown, claims garment worker by Archie Bland, The Guardian, 11 July 2020)
And even after the regulators cracked down, some sweatshops just carried on regardless, as revealed in the testimony of a whistleblower cited by the newspaper.
“When the garment factory where Anil worked learned that the risk of coronavirus meant it couldn’t do business as usual, it didn’t shut up shop. Instead, it locked the doors. ‘It was always going,’ said Anil, not his real name. ‘They wrote on pieces of paper: ‘The factory is closed because of coronavirus.’ But they locked the doors, and inside, people were working.”
Anil went on to reveal that when the hue and cry began, the factory in which he worked for about £5 an hour actually speeded up production, running the machines till six in the morning and forcing people to work all night in unsanitary conditions, with rats and mice scurrying across the floor. No hand sanitiser was provided and there was no soap in the gents’ toilet.
Other whistleblowers told the paper that sweatshop bosses even confiscated workers’ employment or identity documents, thereby preventing them from seeking alternative employment.
The reality is that the gangmasters and sweatshop bosses will continue to dodge the rubber-toothed regulators so long as fashion retailers provide a lucrative market for the cheap-labour commodities they produce. And as cut-throat competition between rival retailers hots up, the pressure to push down labour costs is inexorable, guaranteeing the survival by hook or by crook of the cheap-labour forcing houses.
As a GLAA official told the newspaper, factories are just planning to ride out the storm. “You’ve got people exploiting people, thinking: give this a couple of weeks and it’ll blow over. The message will be: ‘Keep your heads down.’”