Garmet workers Leicester - photo Heather Rawling
Garmet workers Leicester - photo Heather Rawling

Heather Rawling, Leicester Socialist Party

Many, mainly Asian, families in Leicester attended an event organised by Fashion Workers Advice Bureau (FAB-L), a new workers’ rights organisation. FAB-L is jointly funded by the unions, but also by some fashion labels.

During the pandemic, Leicester’s garment industry made headlines for slave wages and appalling conditions in the sweatshops. Many factories pay workers £4 to £4.50 an hour.

Many employees also rent overcrowded accommodation from their employers, giving bosses power over nearly all aspects of their lives. Most workers are black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME), or from eastern Europe.

Boohoo fashion company accounts for 75-80% of Leicester garment production. Boohoo shares fell by 23% in July last year after conditions in its factories were exposed during the pandemic. But Boohoo was at the FAB-L event, advertising jobs in its factory!

Any organisation that receives funds from big business is limited in what it can do. FAB-L can advise, but can it organise?

Since its launch in January this year, FAB-L has helped 50-60 workers recover wages. That’s about ten workers per month. At that rate, it would take over 80 years to help all the 10,000 workers in Leicester’s garment industry.

Neelam Verma from Unite urged people to join a union. But how would the companies sponsoring FAB-L feel if the whole industry organised and fought for a living wage that kept pace with inflation? Would they still fund it?

Wouldn’t it be better for the unions to independently launch a joint campaign to unionise the industry and organise to fight for better wages and conditions?

It won’t be easy. Garment workers fear intimidation if they are seen talking to unions.

But it can be done by tactics such as leafleting in the community and confidential telephone lines. Once unionised, workers would have a sense of their own strength as an organised workforce and develop confidence to take on the bosses.

See ‘End the scandal of sweatshop labour in Leicester’