The Socialist 8 July 2020 |
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End the scandal of sweatshop labour in lockdown Leicester
Heather Rawling, Leicester Socialist Party
Why has there been a spike in people testing positive for Covid-19 in Leicester? It is most prevalent in areas that have a thriving underworld of sweatshops.
Investigations have highlighted what many knew already: that Leicester's garment industry is a murky place. Many factories employ workers on slave wages of around £4 to £4.50 an hour. £5 an hour is considered a good wage.
Many of these workers live in extremely overcrowded conditions. Parts of Leicester are among the most overcrowded in the UK outside of London, according to the 2011 census. Up to 20 factory workers can share a small terrace house.
Some homes are owned by the employers, giving bosses power over nearly all aspects of their lives. Most employees are black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME), including Eastern European. A number do not have documented resident status.
Much of this underbelly of the Leicester economy continued operating during the lockdown at 100% capacity. The factories were fulfilling orders. The government knew about this, and informed Leicester's Labour mayor. Neither did anything.
Boohoo Group Ltd is a fashion company which reportedly relies on East Midlands sweatshops. Boohoo accounts for 75-80% of garment production in Leicester, and sources 60-70% of its products from Leicester, according to campaign group Labour Behind the Label. This apparently increased in recent weeks, to around 80%, as Boohoo quickly adapted to changing requirements during lockdown.
Labour Behind the Label has reported that workers who tested positive for Covid-19 were required to work throughout their sickness in order to fulfil orders. Some work in more than one factory.
Recent revelations of its sweatshops have caused some problems for Boohoo. On 6 July the company's shares fell by 23%.
Health and safety
Garment manufacturing is a major industry in Leicester, with over 1,000 known sites, excluding homeworking. Health and safety is rarely on the employers' agenda. Social distancing? Forget it.
The dilapidated Imperial Typewriters building, where a famous strike took place in the 1970s against blatant racist practices, now houses a few of these sweatshops. The Corah site, a major garment manufacturer that used to supply companies like M&S, has now been broken up into many smaller factory units.
In fact, most sites are small workshops, often housed in old, previously disused factory buildings - a legacy of the decline of the hosiery and manufacturing industries in the 1970s and 1980s. The unions in Leicester failed to mount an effective campaign against closures at that time.
The National Union of Hosiery and Knitwear Workers (now a part of Community, which mainly organises steel workers) relied on a campaign for import controls. Cheaper goods were being imported from countries like India and Bangladesh, where sweatshop wages were paid.
An international campaign to raise the wages of all workers, and occupations to protect jobs and facilities, could have been more successful.
Some hosiery machinery was shipped abroad, but some workers used their redundancy money to buy machines and set up on their own. Most were squeezed by multinationals demanding cheaper clothes.
Today, slave labour conditions thrive in Leicester. It is truly a 'race to the bottom' as sweatshop employers compete to worsen pay, terms and conditions for workers. Manufacturers investing in machinery, and paying the minimum wage and above, cannot compete. Why invest in new machinery when human labour is so cheap, even if it is illegal?
It is a microcosm of capitalism in decline. As Marx proclaimed, capital came into being "dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt." He was talking primarily about slavery. But capitalism still drips with blood and dirt.
Although the Covid-19 spike in Leicester has brought this shady world to wider attention, it has been known about for a long time. The line taken by government, local and national, has been to do nothing in case it causes mass unemployment.
Poverty breeds coronavirus. 41% of Leicester's children officially live in poverty. In 2014, the Office for National Statistics said Leicester had the lowest disposable income in the country - £5,000 a year less than the national average. No wonder people are forced to go to work in unsafe conditions.
Is this all that capitalism has to offer? Doing nothing means that people have got ill, some will die, schools have had to close, and the local economy has been shut down before it even got to reopen.
What is happening in Leicester will happen elsewhere. It's the direct result of successive governments cutting back health and safety inspections, failing to enforce the minimum wage, and otherwise worsening the living and working conditions of the working class.
Labour-controlled Leicester City Council is also culpable for ignoring what has been going on. It has failed to defend workers' rights.
Larger food manufacturers have had outbreaks too: Walkers Crisps, the Pladis Biscuit factory that makes McVitie's biscuits, and Samworth Brothers - a union-busting firm. All mainly employ migrant and BAME workers who are more vulnerable.
There are many dangers. The racist right will blame the increases in Covid-19 on BAME and migrant workers themselves. But they are the victims of a system of extreme exploitation, where there has been little choice but to work in unsafe conditions.
Work or don't feed your family. Work or become homeless. The same employers and capitalist politicians responsible for ripping off workers in textile sweatshops have been ripping off the rest of the working class too.
The Socialist Party calls for:
- A massive trade union recruitment campaign to unionise these workers on reduced membership rates. Leafleting homes in the affected areas could be a start. Publicise the conditions and organise campaigns among members where appropriate. Call for solidarity action from unionised workforces, like transport and postal workers
- An amnesty for all migrant workers from deportation and other punitive measures so they are not afraid to report abuses
- Close down the sweatshops and create new, safe, publicly owned workplaces. Job guarantees for all workers. If needed, share out the work with no loss of pay. For democratic workers' control and management of publicly owned industry
- Pay a living wage! No one should earn less than £12 an hour, or £15 in London, as steps towards a real living wage
- The big retailers who buy and sell these garments knew about this extreme exploitation. Nationalise the garment industry under democratic workers' control and management to prevent future abuses