- Danielle Wightman-Stone |
Fast-fashion e-tailer Boohoo, which reported strong Q1 sales up 45 percent last month, has been accused of fuelling the coronavirus spread in Leicester, after claims that the factories in its supply chain told staff to come into work during lockdown despite being sick.
A report from Labour Behind the Label, a garment worker’s rights group, stated that conditions in Leicester’s factories, primarily those producing garments for Boohoo, were putting workers at risk of Covid-19 infections and fatalities after what they call “blatant intimation of vulnerable workers”.
The release of the damaging report came after Leicester became the first city in the UK to have lockdown reimposed after an increase in local infections.
It reveals that many Leicester factories continued operating throughout the lockdown, with the principal cause to sustain online orders for Boohoo, which continued to operate and trade online throughout. By April 22, the report states that even before the lockdown on businesses reopening was lifted, factories were reportedly operating at 100 percent capacity.
Garment manufacturing is a major industry in Leicester with over 1,000 known sites, excluding homeworking, with many it stating housed in “dilapidated buildings with little investment in building safety and modern ventilation” which it adds means that those factories would not be able to operate at full capacity whilst ensuring social distancing and adequate Covid-19 protection measures were in place.
Labour Behind the Label also added that it had heard directly from many workers, who were positive for Covid-19, who were forced to work throughout their sickness in order to fulfil orders, and others who showed symptoms of the virus were told to come into work or else risk losing their jobs.
Other allegations from workers listed in the report include numerous reports of furlough fraud, no social distancing rules or PPE and sanitisers provided, workers wishing to isolate being denied pay, and of workers being forced to work in conditions of modern slavery.
Boohoo responds to Labour Behind The Label coronavirus report
In a statement, Boohoo responded to the report saying that it “categorically does not tolerate any incidence of non-compliance especially in relation to the treatment of workers within our supply chain and we have terminated relationships with suppliers where evidence of non-compliance with our strict code of conduct is found”.
Boohoo added: “It may surprise people to know that we applaud any examination of practices in supply chains, because we share similar aims: that everyone employed is fairly treated and properly remunerated for the work that they do. However, for any work of this nature to have credibility and to be of value it needs to be accurate and factually correct, which the Labour Behind the Label report, unfortunately, is not.”
The fast-fashion e-tailer goes on to list the inaccurate statements in the garment worker’s rights group report, including how since the onset of the coronavirus that it has “significantly changed” how it operates its business to ensure that it has “closely followed and adhered to all aspects of the guidance provided by the government to keep everyone in our business safe and well”, while noting that at no point has the government guidance required any online business or factory to close. Adding that the report was “therefore wrong to suggest that we were flouting the rules by continuing to trade before the April 22”.
Boohoo goes on to add that it had made available “sufficient amounts of PPE and hygiene products” free of charge to any supplier that needed them to ensure that these were available for their teams, “so there is no reason that these would not be available,” but did also note that they do not have an “exclusive relationship” with any supplier in its supply chain.
In addition, the retailer stated the as a business it had also “invested heavily to ensure that we meet and exceed the guidance relating to self-isolation, social distancing and hygiene standards to ensure that every Boohoo workplace is as risk-free as possible”.
Adding that it doesn’t “condone any supplier that disregards the very clear guidance on dealing with those affected by Covid-19 and we will immediately look into the claims made in this report, together with our third-party compliance partner”.
Leicester’s clothing manufacturing practices under the spotlight
Leicester is the UK largest clothing manufacturing hub and its clothing factories have been attracting the attention of labour rights groups for a number of years, with numerous reports suggesting that workers are paid significantly below the National Minimum Wage rate and receive as little as 3 pounds an hour.
Labour Behind The Label states the conditions in the garment industry have repeatedly been brought to the attention of the government and authorities by the ETI, an inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Environmental Audit Committee, and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and that now “more than ever” the government must recognise that the situation in the UK and particularly in Leicester is not only the result of “some unscrupulous suppliers but also an inevitable outcome of the current fast fashion business model and the lack of regulation of pricing and purchasing practices”.
The garment worker’s rights group is calling on urgent action from local and central government authorities to ensure that all factories are operating safely as well as investing Boohoo’s sourcing and purchasing practices as they claim it is fast-fashion retailers that “enable continued wage theft and unsafe working practices” at the Leicester factories.
Labour Behind The Label is also calling on consumers to tell Boohoo to go #GoTransparent to force the company to publish their supply chain and tell everyone about the working conditions and wages behind their low-cost clothing, so the “human cost” behind the price tag can be seen by its shoppers.
Image: courtesy of Boohoo