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The Desperate Plight of Many Leicester Garment Workers

Unpaid wages, unexplained dismissals, and punishing working hours are among the catalogue of exploitative practices in UK’s garment sector, according to new industry report.
More than half of the garment workers surveyed said they were paid less than the minimum wage, and received no holiday pay.
More than half of the garment workers surveyed said they were paid less than the minimum wage, and received no holiday pay. (Shutterstock)

‘When people are so vulnerable, they often don’t even know that they’re being exploited. It’s really difficult to see who is on your side.” Leicester community activist Tarek Islam is describing the position of many workers in the city’s garment factories.

Unpaid wages, unexplained dismissals, punishing working hours … he and his colleagues at community project Fab-L (Fashion-workers’ Advice Bureau Leicester) have uncovered a catalogue of exploitative practices.

Fab-L is a collaboration with unions Unite and GMB, backed by clothing brands including Asos, Next, River Island and Boohoo – this last via a charitable trust. Its aim is to help garment workers understand and enforce their employment rights.

The findings of Islam and his colleagues chime with those of a 2022 study in which more than half of the garment workers surveyed said they were paid less than the minimum wage, and received no holiday pay.

Last October, hundreds of factory workers turned up for a rally in a Leicester park, organised by the campaign group Labour Behind the Label, calling for decent working conditions.

To try to improve these conditions, Fab-L requires its sponsoring brands sign “workplace support agreements”, which promise to allow community organisers and union reps access to all the factories in their supply chains.

The project was launched in January 2022, in response to media reports during and after the pandemic which sparked significant concerns about working conditions in Leicester factories. Many of these are small concerns, employing fewer than 100 workers.

“Within our first month, two workers told us they had not been paid for over a month,” Islam said. “It turned out the entire factory hadn’t been paid for a month.”

He and representatives from Unite were able to use their access to the fashion brands to put pressure on the factory owner and ensure the workers were paid what they were owed, which totalled £45,000 ($57312).

On a visit to Fab-L at its home in Leicester’s Highfields community centre, Kate Bell, the TUC’s assistant general secretary, said the case underlined the importance of giving unions the right to enter workplaces, something Labour has promised as part of its “new deal for working people”.

Bell said: “One of the innovative things about these agreements in Leicester is that finally trade unions are able to get in. They’ve got access to some of those workers. If we didn’t have that right, as we don’t across most of the economy, those stories just wouldn’t be being heard.

“Part of Labour’s new deal proposal is around access to workplaces for trade unions, just so people know there’s someone they can talk to, someone they can turn to. And, hopefully, someone who can help them build the ability to speak up for themselves.”

A Department for Business and Trade spokesperson defended the government’s record on workers’ rights, insisting that “paying the minimum wage is not optional – it is the law”. They pointed to the 700 fines issued to businesses by HMRC for underpaying their staff between 2021 and 2022.

But Bell, who sits on the government’s Low Pay Commission, said unions could play a key role in uncovering abuses.

Islam says Fab-L sometimes finds it difficult to explain the point of union membership to workers who are struggling to get by – and may have close community connections with the factory owners they work for.

“There has been low union membership in the garment industry for the past 25 years,” he said. " The thinking is: ‘We don’t know about unions. We don’t see how it can relate. How are we going to be demanding better pay when we’ve only just found work, and we already know that the boss has done us a favour?’”

He told of a woman who sought his help in dealing with her landlord after her kitchen ceiling had collapsed. “When people are that vulnerable,” he said, “when people don’t even have access to basic living conditions, you can try to understand why they won’t report issues at work.”

Nevertheless, since the start of the project, Islam said, he and colleagues had won workers £160,000 in unpaid or underpaid wages.

As well as handing out leaflets offering help and advice in the factories they are able to visit, Islam and fellow organiser Fatimah Li run outreach events, including setting up stalls in local supermarkets.

They hold regular English classes, and a drop-in “fashion workers’ club,” where union reps, including local GMB organiser Cassie Farmer, are on hand to offer advice.

“Cassie has been here a couple of times where we’ve had an influx of six or seven workers from a specific factory, and they’ve all got some issue,” said Li.

She added that even though the brands may be on board, factory owners could be sceptical. “Although it was easy to go into certain factories – with the support of brands, which gave us that access – it was quite challenging once we were there, because the suppliers, the bosses, weren’t very happy about it.”

Over time, and with the help of the unions, she and Islam – who have now been joined by a third member of staff – have worked to make the case for their presence.

“We weren’t there to police factories; we were there to ensure garment workers had a way to organise themselves and ask the right questions, and make the workplace more worker-friendly,” she said.

A Bulgarian worker, who wanted to remain anonymous, described being handed a P45 form and then asked to sign a new contract by her boss after taking leave to travel to her home country for dental work.

A month later, she said, she was told to go home because there was no work – and she has been waiting anxiously ever since. Unite reps are now working with Fab-L on her case.

Another worker told her story in Hindi by video. Translating, Li said when the woman started work in a factory in April, she was told she could not be given a contract or a payslip because of problems with the computer system. “She agreed to work for £5 an hour because she was desperate and thought it was better to take a job and get in there, then see if there was anything better to come,” Li said.

When it came to being paid, “she calculated an estimate of 200 worked hours, but the factory boss said, ‘I’ll pay you for 100, but 100 I want back’.” The worker said the boss then tried to reduce her hourly wage – which was already well below the legal minimum – even further.

“She said, ‘You’re forcing me into hardship. What can I do?’,” Li translated. “And he replied, ‘It’s up to you: the door’s open. No one’s forcing you to be here. If you no longer want to be here, you can go out and leave.’”

With the support of Fab-L, the woman did leave – for a new job in a different sector. The GMB is working to win back her unpaid wages.

Farmer, of the GMB, said the case had been hard to deal with, because the factory in question was not in the supply chain of any of the group’s funders. “I can’t even go in,” she said.

Fab-L’s work is taking place at a time of dwindling orders. Union reps and community organisers acknowledge that there is now much less work to go around in the city’s garment sector than there was a few years ago.

The rush of “reshoring” that came with Covid as supply chains to China were abruptly severed has been replaced by a fresh wave of outsourcing, including to Morocco.

Dominique Muller of Labour Behind the Label said there were concerns that brands were seeking to evade scrutiny – as well as cut costs – by sending work overseas.

“In Leicester, we have been building up these mechanisms of accountability,” she said, “and brands are supporting that, because it looks good in their annual report. But they’re now not putting the orders in, because they would far rather be using somewhere really cheap, where NGOs don’t have the ability or the resources to monitor them.”

Islam, who comes from a family of garment workers, said despite the shocking working conditions he has been outlining, it would be a bad thing if work continued to be shifted elsewhere. “We believe the garment industry needs to stay,” he said. “We’re only highlighting these challenges to say that these are the things that need to be fixed – and also to show that they are fixable.”

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