Pardeep Singh and Boohoo: sweatshop and semi-slavery conditions on the rise

An immigrant worker whose punishment beating was filmed by his employer serves as a stark reminder of the true face of capitalist exploitation.

Proletarian writers

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Conditions described as ‘modern slavery’ are increasingly common in sectors of the British economy such as clothes manufacture, warehouse fulfilment, construction, cleaning and agriculture. Here we see the quest for maximum profit starkly revealed: either export your capital to where labour is cheapest, or import the pay and conditions applicable in developing countries, making maximum use of those members of the workforce, especially ‘illegal’ immigrants or foreign students, who are least able to defend themselves.

Proletarian writers

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At the close of 2022, film emerged on social media of a young man being berated and the punched about the face and head, in what appeared to be a faux-hostage scenario. Certainly, the violence being meted out had ritualistic elements, with the victim made to kneel humiliatingly and receiving taunts from off-camera, whilst a man towering above him doled out punishment.

Yet the context was incongruous, with little else signalling a distant war zone. Popular slogans on sweatshirts, neat ceiling spotlights and magnolia-painted walls indicated that this brutality was more likely to have been a civilian matter, perhaps a gang-related straightener. After all, both men in the footage appeared to be Asian, so one might assume that some dispute, some transgression, was being resolved ‘culturally’ within ‘the community’.

A disturbing watch, the young man horribly vulnerable during the onslaught from the grandstanding bully, but to an audience well-schooled in the specious liberal arguments of identity politics surrounding race and culture, it presented a potential minefield and was therefore best avoided: scroll past.

A closer examination would have revealed, however, that the footage was posted by British workers outraged by the rampant exploitation, intimidation and physical assaults meted out to employees on a regular basis and seemingly with impunity by Baljit Singh, owner of Conform (UK) Plant UK Wolverhampton.

Pardeep Singh, an Indian citizen who has been studying in Britain for two years, was employed by Conform (UK) Plant Ltd from 5 April 2021 to 1 July 2022 – a total of 15 months, on pay between £8 and £9 per hour for a 40-hour week. Although he worked far longer hours, no overtime payment was ever made. He did not receive a pay slip, a P60 or a contract of employment.

On the evening of 15 October 2022, Baljit Singh visited Pardeep at his home along with 15 other men. For the crime of having demanded his back-pay, they beat him so badly that he required hospitalisation, and he is currently being treated for mental distress.

The entire attack was recorded by one of the boss’s companions and published on social media. Meanwhile, even as the British police were called and the crime report was registered, Pardeep’s family in India was being visited by friends of Baljit and threatened.

The company, a subcontractor to the construction industry mainly specialising in concrete-laying for new buildings, car parks, shopping malls and warehouses, has been accused of routinely abusing its employees and withholding wages. Baljit Singh presently employs about 10 workers, although in the past he has had between 30 and 40 on the roll.

His workers are expected to present themselves at 5.00am or earlier and to work until 7.00pm, when they are transported back to the company site – a working week of 70-80 hours. They are only paid for up to 40 hours, however, with their remaining wages being paid as a lump sum at a later date. National insurance and tax contributions are not deducted from the lump sum. The workers have neither payslips nor contracts of employment.

If Baljit Singh and his cronies thought that filming the abuse of Pardeep would act as a warning to other workers seeking fair pay and conditions then it backfired spectacularly. Pardeep and his friends organised a protest outside the company’s premises in Wolverhampton, which was attended by 400 people and addressed by several of the company’s workers.

Following the rally, a meeting was held to seek justice for Pardeep and to hold Baljit accountable for his crimes, initiating the Campaign to Seek Justice for Pardeep. Following this, one of Pardeep’s coworkers was firebombed at his home in November, and it is widely believed that Baljit is aiming to frighten workers who are organising for justice and to expose his crimes.

The workers of Conform (UK) Plant Limited have not been alone in their struggle, receiving support from both the Indian Workers Association (IWA) and the Birmingham Trades Union Council (BTUC).

Superexploitation practices becoming the norm in several sectors

Such flagrant abuse of workers cannot be dismissed as an isolated incident. As we covered in July 2020, similar levels of superexploitation are no longer rare in Britain, particularly among vulnerable immigrant communities. In Leicester’s garment industry, which supplies cheap clothing to high-profile fashion retailers such as Next, Very, Asos and Boohoo, workers were revealed as being routinely mistreated to such an extent that the term ‘sweatshop’ carried no hyperbole. (Leicester sweatshops keep their heads down despite Covid panic, 17 July 2020)

Housed in unsafe and unsanitary conditions for long hours while being paid the derisory sum of £3 to £5 an hour, and with few concessions made to the spread of Covid at the height of the pandemic, the stark images of Victorian exploitation of impoverished workers were horribly revived. Indeed, rather than implementing some adaptations to working practices for the sake of the health of employees, whether though compassion or the fear of legal redress, output from these businesses increased over the period.

Any questioning of employers was met with the confiscation of identity documents, rendering individual workers fearful and quiescent.

Those bodies tasked with preventing such abuses – the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), for example, or the Gangmaster and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) – seemed incapable of effecting meaningful change. Inspections of unsatisfactory premises would merely lead to a plethora of new ‘start-up’ businesses happy to evade inspection, making, in the words of one GLAA official, “a mockery of regulation”.

The image-conscious retailers promptly distanced themselves from disposable-fashion retailer Boohoo when it emerged that that company relied heavily on dubious sweatshop lines. But there was little evidence that this was anything more than a diversionary tactic to keep their own supply lines free from investigation.

Such duplicity is to be expected from profit-squeezing manufacturers and retailers. A GLAA official interviewed by the Financial Times in 2020 was fully aware that the prevailing attitude was “It will blow over”, and, more worryingly, that the sweatshops were common knowledge to councillors and MPs in Leicester. Treating workers as disposable, despite pandemic conditions that placed an extra duty of care onto employers, was simply business as usual.

In an industry sensitive to the whims of the public, the impact of window-dressing is appreciated. In what can only be viewed as a tawdry damage-limitation exercise Leicester’s Fashion Technology Academy inaugurated a new qualification in 2022 aimed at educating workers in the garment industry regarding their rights as employees.

This 10-hour course is apparently designed to give workers an overview of their rights in the workplace, covering such areas as “how to apply for jobs safely, the national minimum wage, holiday pay and reading payslips”. The syllabus also includes information on “how to identify the main signs of modern slavery and labour exploitation, and the ways you can report concerns to the GLAA and law enforcement”.

The course has the full support of the GLAA, which claims on its website to be “passionate about ensuring that all workers are able to understand what they are entitled to and how things should work for them in the workplace”.

There we have it. If only these employees had received their Level 1 certificate before or during the pandemic, perhaps they would never have been subject to such abuses. If only they had been more aware, more assertive, then their wages and conditions might have been improved. Their employers were just waiting patiently for the opening of that dialogue.

Where might they ascend to when they scale the dizzy heights of Level 2? Building worker solidarity, planning and taking effective strike action as a prelude to instituting worker-led democracy? One can only assume that Level 3 will be aimed at implementing legal proceedings against negligent and criminal employers.

This contemptible, empty gesture marks an attempt by an industry hyper-aware of image to mask blatant profiteering by foisting responsibility onto its beleaguered and exploited workers. It aims to knit a cloak of invisibility under which business as usual can continue for the powerful monopolists, protected as ever by complicit agencies, regulators and politicians.

Anyone assuming that such ruthless and often illegal practices are reserved only for illegal or fresh-off-the-boat immigrants and refugees, would do well to read the results of a recent investigation carried out by the Times. In this in-depth article, a picture is painted of workers’ conditions in Britain today that can only be described as dehumanising.

Having learnt nothing from the damage wrought to its brand, to say nothing of the plight of its garment workers, by the 2020 Leicester sweatshop expose, Boohoo continues to pursue practices that, according to its own employees, are akin to imprisonment and slavery.

The Times’s undercover investigator spent a month as a ‘picker’ at Boohoo’s largely windowless distribution warehouse during the summer season, reporting that temperatures as high as 32C were recorded even during a night shift, when the temperature outside was just 19C. The upper floors of the warehouse, an aircraft hangar-sized facility on the outskirts of Burnley, were entirely lacking in outside ventilation or air conditioning.

The picker’s job involves rushing around the aisles collecting items for posting at the direction of a bulky black device that must be strapped to the wrist. Failure to meet the specified target of 130 items an hour results in a picker receiving ‘feedback’, and can ultimately end in dismissal. Despite Boohoo’s claim that pickers cover 7.5 miles per shift, the Times’s reporter covered up to 13 miles during the 11 hours he spent on the warehouse floor.

The physical demands of the job, coupled with the pressure on staff to limit themselves to only one or two (timed) lavatory breaks on a 12-hour shift, has regularly led to workers collapsing in the aisles. Ambulances are called to the site on average once a month to attend workers complaining of chest pain, convulsions or blackouts. Up to three-quarters of the 59 ambulance call-outs over the period in question resulted in hospitalisation.

In addition, workers are provided with shoddy and ill-fitting clothing, particularly shoes, causing blisters and muscle strain. In a further risk to their safety, they have to unload heavy boxes of jeans from a lorry without any training or support, leading many to incur shoulder and back injuries. Despite management reassurances regarding safeguarding, staff have even been refused requests to be allowed unpaid rest breaks.

In such conditions, it is hardly surprising that staff turnover is extremely high, with many workers leaving and others dismissed for failing to keep up with demand. Boohoo claims that the productivity output of its employees averages £83,700, up 13 percent on a year ago, but pickers are paid just £11 an hour. Understandable, then, that staff have scrawled the words “prison” and” slaves” around the workhouse floor.

If that wasn’t already enough, workers have also reported further types of harassment and discrimination at the same Boohoo workhouse. Asian staff are routinely sent pick in the hottest part of the workhouse, and have been mocked when they complained against such overt prejudice.

A female worker who claimed to have been sexually assaulted was ignored when she reported the incident, then accused of lying, only for the assailant to admit the attack when later questioned and finally sacked. Reassurances that Boohoo had a ‘zero-tolerance’ attitude to racism and sexual harassment have done nothing to alleviate workers’ fears. (Inside the Boohoo warehouse where workers call themselves slaves by Billy Kenber and Tom Ball, 22 November 2022)

As ever, management quote official policies and deny wrongdoing. Local MPs occasionally highlight ‘shocking revelations’, but little to nothing changes. As in Leicester, everyone knows what is going on, but they prefer to turn a blind eye. Nothing to see here. Capitalism working as capitalism should: extorting maximum profits from the workers. Regulatory bodies and the law collude as they stand idly by.

Low-paid, immigrant and non-unionised workers fare worst under capitalism, and, as British imperialism sinks into yet another self-inflicted crisis, we can see the deterioration of pay and conditions accelerating, and sweatshop conditions spreading from industry to industry.

At such a time, it would be foolhardy for any worker to believe themselves secure against the ravening tooth and claw of capitalism – an economic system which has at its core the mantra ‘Profit before people’. If left alone to do so, it will devour us all.

It remains to be seen whether Pardeep Singh will receive justice in his case against bloodsucking and bullying employer Baljit Singh. Since Baljit has a long history of starting and closing companies in the Wolverhampton area, we can assume that evading responsibility for his employees is an integral part of his business strategy.

However, one of the marked contradictions in the capitalist system is that in the face of brutality and injustice there arises the opportunity for workers to stand together in solidarity and challenge such inhumanity. Such organised action provides invaluable lessons to oppressed workers about their own power, and sends a signal of hope to workers everywhere.

In this way, justice for Pardeep Singh is justice for all workers.