The government should do more to tackle Leicester garment workers’ fears around reporting illegal wages, a report has urged.
Findings from the Low Pay Commission (LPC) echo earlier studies in concluding there is still a long way to go in improving the treatment of textile factory workers in the city.
Some factories have operated at nighttime to dodge inspections while others have covered up their windows, campaigners told CityA.M.
The working conditions of textile workers has been under the spotlight after workers for boohoo’s suppliers were discovered to be paid as little as £3.50 in 2020.
While enforcement organisations have unearthed “relatively modest” examples of firms under-paying workers, other bodies and individuals described such mistreatment as “widespread and flagrant.”
LPC commissioners said some workers’ vulnerability meant they were hesitant to report incidents of non-compliance while it was possible for enforcement bodies to not catch mistreatments.
The government must place understanding the barriers to workers making reports at the centre of its strategy, with a specific policy to increase complaint volumes, the report concluded.
The LPC recommended the process for reporting abuses should engage third-party bodies trusted by workers and urged HMRC to look at how to tackle this.
Workers often do not speak English as their first language and may be worried about their immigration status, contributing to fears about raising issues with authorities.
HMRC is presently allowed to request documents from employers but not allowed to search for them on factory visits and struggles to conclude records are inaccurate without evidence like worker testimony.
“[Enforcement officers] don’t have the right to go in and look in cupboards for all the documentation. There’s a lot that is missed,” campaign group Labour Behind the Label’s Dominique Muller told CityA.M.
Workers can often rush out the back door when inspectors show up while factories can also easily conceal documents and dodge checks, Muller added.
The fashion industry is based on brands’ purchasing power with suppliers grappling with tiny profit margins and forced to reduce costs, she added.
This often leads to companies reducing their labour bill, sometimes by paying far less than minimum wage.
“That’s the area where the government really has been almost totally absent, there’s a black hole where regulation should be,” Muller said.
Labour Behind The Label, alongside groups like the Trade Union Congress, has been pressing for human rights due diligence legislation, where brands are legally and financially accountable for workers in their supply chain.
The insecurity of the industry was central to non-compliance, with workers having unpredictable hours and incomes, usually with no proper contract.
“The evidence we heard from workers in Leicester was striking. Despite some positive recent progress, job insecurity, a poisonous workplace culture and low expectations leave workers trapped in poor-quality jobs and vulnerable to exploitation,” Bryan Sanderson, chair of the LPC, explained.
He said the case of Leicster was “not unique”, with workers in “precarious positions” across the country facing similar obstacles.
“The problem demands comprehensive action, including to give these workers greater security over their hours and incomes,” he added.
A UK Government spokesperson said that the country had “one of the best workers’ rights records in the world” and ministers had made “strong progress” in pushing forward legislation to “ensure that our employment law keeps pace with the needs of our labour market.”
“We take enforcing the minimum wage seriously and take robust enforcement action against employers who do not pay their staff correctly,” they added.
The LPC’s report echoes findings from an earlier study from the University of Nottingham and De Montfort University, commissioned by the Garment & Textile Workers Trust (G&TWT).
Researchers then called for a single ‘front door’ contact point for workers who want to make a complaint to enforcement agencies, in the shape of a single labour market enforcement body.
“It’s crystal clear that there’s only so much companies, individuals, trade unions and civil society can do to tackle labour exploitation in Leicester and beyond – it’s time for government to step up and form – and fund – their long promised single enforcement body,” said Kevin McKeever, chair of the G&TWT.
“We believe this report further indicates why – and why that promise must be delivered at pace,” McKeever explained on Monday.
[The report] again demonstrates the importance of efforts from individuals, local government, trade unions and civil society in supporting advocacy and empowerment in the sector, and the importance of giving textile workers the voice they so desperately need,” he said.
Suppliers in Leicester have faced scrutiny since workers making clothes to be sold by fast fashion retailer boohoo were revealed to be paid paltry wages in the 2020 Covid lockdown.
An independent inquiry commissioned by boohoo concluded there were “many failings” in the retailer’s supply chain.
However, the retailer has since pledged to make substantial changes to its supply chain and cut ties with hundreds of British suppliers. It also donated £1m initial funding for the G&TWT.