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British garment factories come under new scrutiny due to pandemic

The British city of Leicester has spent more than two months as the United Kingdom’s most notorious coronavirus hot spot. Its problems originally sprang from a district that houses garment factories -- where some unscrupulous owners have been accused of operating sweatshops during the pandemic. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports on an industry some critics call "modern slavery."

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The United Kingdom is bracing for a new surge in COVID cases, partially locking down 20 towns to contain the spread.

    The city of Leicester is hoping to have some restrictions eased tomorrow, after more than two months as Britain's most notorious COVID hot spot. Leicester's problems sprang from a district containing garment factories, where some unscrupulous owners have been accused of running sweatshops during the pandemic.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant has this report.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    There's been outrage that conditions common in Asian slums have been found in this street in Leicester. Rudimentary screens have been erected to thwart prying eyes.

    These are some of the factories now under scrutiny after an undercover newspaper reporter was hired for $4.40 an hour, less than half Britain's minimum wage of $11. The overcrowded factory was operating illicitly during lockdown, and there was no social distancing.

  • Raj Mann:

    The scandal is exploitation of labor. But there's also complicity as well, where workers will opt to be paid for cash in hand, so they can evade tax and national insurance contributions.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Raj Mann is a prominent member of Leicester's Sikh community. Sikhs and Muslims dominate the garment trade, employing about 10,000 people in Leicester.

  • Raj Mann:

    It's endemic. So I don't accept the narrative from the authorities that this is a few factories.

  • Claudia Webbe:

    We're talking about an industry that's employing largely African, Asian, and minority ethnic communities. We're talking about British citizens.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Opposition Labor Party lawmaker Claudia Webbe been inundated with pleas for help from factory workers. They were too scared to talk publicly and accused some owners of forcing staff to work, even though they were sick with COVID.

  • Claudia Webbe:

    It's modern slavery, in the sense that people are being paid such low wages, are working in conditions that are unthinkable in today's age.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Over the past two decades, there have been several exposes of the Leicester garment trade, but the latest revelations stood out, because the factories were portrayed as incubators for the virus.

    COVID-19 has exposed Leicester's dirty little secret. The British equivalent of the FBI is now investigating allegations of slave labor across this city.

  • Raj Mann:

    It's become a matter of life and death. I have had phone calls myself saying: Now I'm compelled to work in these conditions.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Northeast Leicester, which contains the factories, was identified by health officials as a COVID hot spot.

  • Andrew Bridgen:

    An unexpected consequence of the government's lockdown measures were that we shut down all nonessential retail, which includes clothes shops. That forced people to buy off the Internet, and it's Internet retailers who are sourcing from Leicester.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Lawmaker Andrew Bridgen represents a Leicestershire district for the Conservative Party

  • Andrew Bridgen:

    How's this happened? It's a systemic failure of all the protection agencies, the police, the fire service, the local council, health and safety, factory inspectors.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The scandal has had severe consequences for Boohoo, previously Britain's most popular online clothes company.

    It took flak because the factory which hired the undercover reporter supplied stock to Nasty Gal, one of Boohoo's labels. At its peak last year, Boohoo was worth $6.5 billion, but its value plummeted by a billion in a single day.

    The driving forces behind Boohoo are Mahmud Kamani and Carol Kane, who founded the company in 2006. They rejected an interview request, but issued a statement, promising an independent investigation into the supply chain.

    The statement said:

  • Man:

    "The group will not tolerate any incidence of noncompliance with its code of conduct or any mistreatment of workers, and will not hesitate to terminate relationships with any supplier who does not comply."

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In Parliament, the home secretary, Priti Patel, promised to crack down on what she called a modern scourge.

  • Priti Patel:

    We have established a cross-government task force that will be on the ground in Leicester that absolutely asks the difficult questions of all institutions and all organizations across Leicester with regard to this scourge that is taking place in the textile sector.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    There's support across the aisle.

  • Claudia Webbe:

    More inspectors, more resources, more energy put into these inspections.

  • Andrew Bridgen:

    There's no point just taking out a few factories, because all that will do is to create a pull factor for more people trafficking in illegal migration. So you have got to take down the whole organization.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But, in this deprived area of Leicester, veteran community worker Priya Thamotheram is skeptical about government promises because of previous failures to end malpractices.

  • Priya Thamotheram:

    Their reports were considered by a Parliamentary select committee, but in terms of the actions that arose from that, pretty much zilch. It's very difficult to have any confidence in a top-down approach that seems to be adopted again.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Worldwide demand for cheap, fast fashion has contributed to the scandal.

    Tiarra Monet is an American fashion influencer with almost a million followers across social media.

  • Tiarra Monet:

    Boohoo is notorious for having these last-minute 50 percent off sales. And that's when I usually do the most damage, because I'm like, oh, it's — it was $20, and now it's $10. Like, I have to buy it.

  • Meg Lewis:

    It really is a time to make sure we get some meaningful change.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Labor Behind the Label is a small nonprofit striving to end garment workers' exploitation.

    Campaign manager Meg Lewis:

  • Meg Lewis:

    In the coming weeks and months, we're going to be putting pressure on the government and on big brands to make sure that this is a turning point, because we can't go back to the situation that we had before.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    That means convincing artists like British pop band Little Mix to be more selective about the brands they promote., Here they're touting the PrettyLittleThing collection, another Boohoo label.

  • Raj Mann:

    Consumers need to be informed. They need to know where the garment is coming from and what the cost is in terms of exploitation. And they can vote with their pound, and spend it on who they think is the most ethical clothes retailer.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Law agencies have conducted raids and sweeps throughout Leicester, but only a handful of factories have been punished for health and safety breaches.

    Activists fear that unscrupulous bosses are being tipped off in advance and are simply moving their operations to new premises. So, the exploitation and risk of the virus spreading continue.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Leicester.

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