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The Leicestershire area has the second highest concentration of textile manufacturing in the UK, with 1,500 businesses employing around 10,000 people.

However, big retailers have been reluctant to increase production in the UK due to concerns about the exploitation of workers through unsafe working practices and ‘sweatshop wages’.

Owner of the online fashion retailer ASOS and former Boss of New Look, Anders Kristiansen, described the situation in 2017 as a ‘ticking time bomb’ (1)  noting that “Many of these factories have unsafe conditions with fire escapes blocked up, workers exploited and paid far below minimum wage. What happens if there is another massive fire, what will it take for people to wake up?”

Worse, the situation has been ongoing for almost a decade. According to research data from the University of Leicester dating back to 2010, out of 11,700 employees in the sector, 75-90% were being paid £3 per hour. This is less than half of the legal minimum wage and far below the UK living wage. The report details shocking working practices which include inadequate health and safety standards, bullying, arbitrary humiliation, refusal of toilet breaks and appropriation of maternity pay. (2)

The Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire, Andrew Bridgen, described the area as “the wild west” noting that “If you withdraw regulatory oversight and the police from everything, organised crime is going to move in.” (3)

In spite of the extensive reports of exploitation, Leicester’s clothing manufacturers were the subject of just 36 HMRC investigations into payment of the national minimum wage between 2017 and March 2020 with penalties issued to fewer than 10 textile firms claiming just over £100,000 in arrears relating to 143 workers (3). The estimated value of wages being collectively denied to workers equates to roughly £1m in wages each week (2).  

These figures represent an appalling lack of regulatory oversight in an area where long-standing abuse of low paid and low skilled workers has become the norm.

It would appear that austerity driven budget cuts in the last decade at the regulatory bodies have reduced their ability to monitor and enforce safe and fair workplace conditions. According to a report by the Guardian in August of 2020, there are only four frontline HSE inspectors in Leicester and three trainees (3) to cover a vast district with many hundreds of factories and thousands of employees.

The HSE has reportedly stated that it was “committed to working in partnership with other enforcement bodies, both strategically and at an operational level to share intelligence where necessary, and take action to improve the working lives of those within the textile and other industries”. (3)

It appears clear however, that until the HSE has sufficient funding and resources to enforce standards in this sector, conditions have little chance of improving.

1.    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2017/08/19/leicester-factories-ticking-time-bomb-asos-new-look-join-lobbying/
2.    https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/for-journalists/media-resources/Leicester%20Report%20-%20Final%20-to%20publish.pdf
3.    https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/aug/30/revealed-shocking-lack-of-regulation-at-leicester-garment-factories

Blog by Lewis Clark, Solicitor

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