Harriet Harman warned the government of ‘endemic’ worker exploitation in Leicester’s fast fashion factories three years ago – but her calls for action fell on deaf ears.
After detailing abuses in the sector in a 2017 inquiry, parliament’s human rights committee called for new powers to be given to councils to take direct action; allowing them to inspect and close factories that breached regulations. These were ignored.
Last week it emerged that more than 50 people linked to the Leicester textiles industry had been banned from company directorships for between three and fourteen years, according to data from the Insolvency Service. They account for around 40 per cent of all disqualified directors in the city – showing the huge extent of the industry’s problems.
The Camberwell and Peckham MP, who co-chairs the committee, has criticised Boris Johnson for trying to ‘pass buck’ and blame Leicester’s mayor for the situation.
“In 2017 the human rights committee complained about fast fashion’s failure to take responsibility for wrongdoing in the Leicester supply chain,” Harman said. “Nothing was done.”
The report, Human Rights and Business 2017: Promoting responsibility and ensuring accountability detailed human rights abuses in garment and textile sectors in UK factories and by UK suppliers based in Turkey.
While visiting Leicester, the committee heard evidence that exploitation was ‘endemic’ in factories servicing the growing demand for ‘fast fashion’ – ultra low price and high turn around online stories.
“It is common practice for employers to hand out wage slips which understate the number of hours worked by employees in order to save on employers’ tax contributions and to make it appear as though employers are paying the minimum wage,” one section of the report notes.
“For example, while most workers work between 40–50 hours a week, their wage slips might only show 20 hours of work, paid at the minimum wage.”
Leicester was forced to enter a local lockdown after recording the highest infection rate in the country, with new cases believed to be fuelled by unsafe working conditions in factories.
They included a factory manufacturing for online retailer Boohoo, which failed to down tools during the pandemic.