A study into the lives and working conditions of Leicester’s garment workers has identified nine key areas that the sector can improve upon, after shocking conditions were exposed during the pandemic.
Experts from the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab and De Montfort University were commissioned by the Garment & Textile Workers Trust (G&TWT) to gather insight directly from those who work in the garment industry to inform the purpose and scope of the Trust, which was formed earlier this year.
The trust was set up after Boohoo was criticised for conditions and workers’ rights at its city suppliers.
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, and most are black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME), or from eastern Europe.
Researchers behind the study, which has just been published, hope it will bring about change in the industry.
The experts have recommended priority areas for major retailers and government agencies to focus on to improve workers’ lives and working conditions – these include:
- Improve worker access to English language provision, both at work and in community settings, with greater flexibility to enable all workers to attend.
- Provide a single ‘front door’ contact point for workers wishing to make a complaint to enforcement agencies and offer ongoing support and case management for those who raise issues. Ensure that successful outcomes are communicated to raise levels of confidence.
- Establish trusted support to advocate for workplace rights. This should engage with existing trades union initiatives but should also explore additional options for representation of worker voices, drawing on the experience of organisations that have experience in representing migrant workers.
- Connect workers with sources of community-based legal advice and support, available in a range of community languages. This support should cover immigration, housing and welfare rights in addition to workplace rights.
- Improve access to local educational services for workers and their families, particularly related to further education, and language support for younger children.
- Connect workers with sources of employment support, training, information and advice to enable them to access different types of work.
- Continue to engage closely with employers to create high-quality jobs that are accessible to a wide range of workers (including those with caring responsibilities or limited transport options).
Dr Alison Gardner, lead researcher from the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham, said:
“Garment workers told us that they want to build a beautiful future for the next generation in Leicester, but there are currently many constraints that stop them from accessing fair pay and conditions. Our report has added to the existing knowledge about these issues, but importantly also points to solutions suggested by workers themselves. We hope that the interventions outlined in our report can help to guide both local and national-level action in the years ahead.”
Initial funding for the Trust of £1m, donated by the Boohoo Group, will be funnelled through charities who are already proving to have a positive impact for garment workers and who would benefit from an injection of additional funding. The funds will be targeted at partners who can provide training and access to free advocacy, two of the key challenges faced by those who took part in the research.
Many workers that took part in the study identified limited employment options, due to a lack of qualifications and job search skills, proficiency in English and – particularly for women – cultural expectations associated with family and childcare duties. They also expressed a wish to pursue additional training, particularly in relation to English language skills, IT skills, and practical topics such as first aid.
The researchers report that anti-exploitation measures have proved ineffective due to the isolation of workers, low expectations concerning the impact of raising concerns, and insufficient multi-agency collaboration at local level. The experts say that there are also continuing disincentives to employers to offer decent work, due to uncertainty about the financial returns possible within an ethical business model and a ready supply of workers with limited options.
Dave Walsh, Professor in Criminal Investigation at the School of Law at De Montfort University, said: “Economic pressures on small business in the garment industry in Leicester may well contribute to continued exploitation of workers. In turn, we have learned that while workers tend to know their rights they report feeling powerless. As such, there may well be opportunities for community leaders and outreach workers to represent these workers so that they receive a decent wage and help them overcome unethical tactics that some employers were allegedly undertaking that effectively meant people were not being paid for the work they done.”
Tim Nelson, CEO of Hope for Justice and founding Trustee added: “It is clear from this research that greater coordination is required from those accountable for protecting the rights of workers employed in the garment industry. Businesses, charities and individuals can all play their part, but to truly rebuild this country’s proud textile heritage and to protect the sector’s workforce, we need the Government to act. The creation of a single, properly funded labour market enforcement body, with the powers and staff it needs to protect workers, is a vital first step.”
Khudeja Amer-Sharif, CEO of Shama Women’s Centre, said: “This research has helped to identify positive solutions to address the endemic issues that female workers in the textiles garment industry have faced for generations. As a women’s organisation with the expertise of working with, and the trust of, local female workers spanning 36 years, we are keen to continue to empower women by providing vital support such as, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses; textiles training; workers’ rights; advocacy and help into work in a unique women’s only environment.”
Leicester workers took part in an anonymous questionnaire or interviews about their experiences of working in the garment sector and their ideas of how people’s working lives can be improved.