Did crying modern slavery in Leicester benefit the workers?

Without alternatives or safety nets to fall back on, closures of fast-fashion factories left workers worse off

Photo of people working in a factory by Remy Gieling
Boohoo dropped several of its suppliers in the city following allegations of modern slavery
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In the summer of 2020, a string of media investigations exposed severe worker exploitation in the UK’s fast fashion business. It was a national shame, and the revelations led to allegations of modern slavery in one city in particular: Leicester.

Andrew Bridgen, the Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire, branded the city the “Wild West” of slavery. He claimed on LBC, without referencing evidence, that there were “probably 10,000 modern slaves in Leicester”.

One of the brands supplied by Leicester’s warehouses was Boohoo, a fast fashion retailer famous for producing stylish clothes quickly, and for extremely low prices. It tried to contain the damage. Under pressure from civil society and government, it initiated an independent review, and ultimately dropped many of its Leicester-based suppliers.

The government also took action, with investigators visiting over 350 factories under ‘Operation Tacit’. By May 2021, Boohoo had consolidated its supplier factories to 67 from an initial 500. Hundreds of factories closed.

But what happened to the workers? What happened to Leicester’s “10,000 modern slaves”?

Closures may have created more harm than good

We conducted research in Leicester from April to July 2023 to find out what happened next to both the factories and the workers.

We think the crackdown did more harm than good. Two reasons why have to do with the lack of better alternatives that were on offer in Leicester.

First, the crackdown happened during the pandemic. It wasn’t a good time to try to find a new job, especially as a factory worker. So, while the conditions may have been bad inside the factories, they were at least jobs. They kept people alive.

Many workers were relying on food banks because they could no longer afford groceries

Removing those jobs without having replacement positions readily available made bad situations worse. During our research, we met ex-workers who had been pushed to the brink by unemployment, the lockdowns, and the cost-of-living crisis.

“We don’t have jobs and we don’t know what to do,” said one worker from India. “We have some savings, but how long are they going to last?”

Many were also relying on food banks because they could no longer afford groceries. “The queue outside the food bank in Leicester is mostly comprised of us garment workers," said another former garment worker from India. "We are ashamed but we have no other choice.”

Second, the crackdown affected people whose CVs weren’t attractive to the employers offering better conditions and better pay. They only had bad options, and their only choice, realistically, regarded the type of exploitation they preferred.

The garment industry in Leicester relied primarily on the labour of South Asian women migrant workers. More often than not, these workers spoke little English, had low educational attainment, and could only work part-time due to their childcare duties. Many had also incurred huge debts in order to migrate to the UK.

Few employers in Leicester other than the garment factories were willing to employ such workers. Thus once again, while the conditions may have been bad, having these jobs taken away with no ready replacement didn’t necessarily improve their lives. For some, it was the opposite of ‘rescue’ – akin to being pushed out of a damaged but still airborne plane without a parachute.

And for many of the workers, the reasons for being pushed were largely irrelevant. “I don't think the term modern slavery means anything to the workers,” said Jennifer Wascak, managing director of Justice in Fashion, a UK based community interest company. “Most of the time it's just a matter of, ‘how can I get what I need in order to survive?’”

Some ex-garment workers have found work in the food processing factories around Leicester. These jobs are also characterised by bad pay and working conditions. But, thanks to the closures, there aren’t enough posts for the number of people looking for work. A job centre employee told us that for every vacancy in a food processing factory, there are over 50 applications. Labour supply has outstripped the demand, exacerbating an already bad situation.

As a result, many workers complained of irregular employment, with some working only a few days in a month. Losing their exploitative job in the garment industry has negatively impacted these workers lives, which is not what should follow a crackdown on ‘modern slavery’.

A diversionary tactic

Finally, the crackdown from brands like Boohoo on their supplier factories helped hide brands’ role in creating the conditions for exploitation.

It’s a simple feint that labour researchers have observed all over the world. A factory is found to have poor conditions. Rather than taking responsibility for the violations, the brands giving that supplier contracts profess ignorance of what was happening. They then make a show of launching an investigation and expelling the rotten apple.

The image that emerges is of a generally good corporate citizen who was deceived, but who moved quickly to get its house back in order once it became aware of the problem.

“Brands merely shift their production to locations where cheap labour is readily available” – Former supplier in Leicester

This obscures fully how the purchasing practices of brands compel suppliers to reduce costs in ways that create poor working conditions. These practices are characterised by low prices, low and inconsistent volume of orders, shortened manufacturing timelines, inadequate forecasting, unfair penalties, and unfavourable terms of payment for the manufacturer.

One former supplier in Leicester echoed what researchers have long known. “Well-intentioned exposés, such as the Boohoo scandal, do not truly assign responsibility for those left behind,” he said. “Brands merely shift their production to locations where cheap labour is readily available.” And the whole process starts again.

A fair accounting of Leicester would have put brands under the microscope, not just regarding their ignorance of the conditions in their supplier factories, but also regarding how their business practices had made it near impossible for those factories to remain profitable without resorting to exploitation.

But that didn’t happen. The factories closed and the brands moved their production (and their practices) elsewhere. Their new suppliers are now likely suffering under the same dynamics as the old ones. Meanwhile the workers, whom the modern slavery discourse is supposedly all about, lost their livelihoods and an employment option without gaining a better one.

Leicester may now have fewer garment factories, but because of the limited bad options available to migrant workers in Leicester, it’s very unclear what good that has done anybody.

Andrew Bridgen: time to get to work.

Additional reporting by Nandita Dutta and Vivek Soundararajan.

  • The full report can be accessed on the Embed Dignity site in English, Gujarati, Hindi and Punjabi.

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