Wednesday 4 August 2021

Boohoo and the Welfare of Migrant Garment Workers in Leicester

This was originally written as part of my BA English Literature and Politics and has been adapted as a blog post. 

Garment workers have been a long exploited group, with only an estimated 2% paid a living wage worldwide, and significant and regular events of workplace violence and neglect (such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in 2013, and more recently workers being forced to work through lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic in unsafe conditions). For migrant garment workers, a large proportion of this workforce worldwide, this precariousness is only increased. 

According to a recent report by NGO Labour Behind the Label - which the Ethical Trading Initiative stated it ‘believes to be an accurate summary of the challenges facing the industry’ -  the average wage of garment workers in Leicester is only £3 per hour, well below the National Minimum wage. Irregular migrant workers have been reported to be paid even less, with some cases at just £1 per hour. Government policies such as the ‘hostile environment’ result in the removal of the agency of migrant workers to challenge their employers and as they are unable to bring formal complaints against their employers, unionise or ask for support from their MPs for fear of being arrested or deported. Migration status therefore affects the workers’ conditions greatly as factory owners are able to further reduce the working conditions and wages without receiving any legal consequences.  

Additionally, young women are overrepresented this area, with women aged 18-24 making up 80% of garment workers worldwide, meaning most are more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation as a result of the intersection of their gender and migrant status. 

The UK’s garment factories are mostly concentrated in Leicester. There are several fast fashion brands who dominate the Leicester factories, notably Boohoo Group Ltd., which sources 80% of its stock from Leicester and accounts for an estimated 80% of the total production in the city (a figure which increased from 60-70% during the first few weeks of the pandemic). The issue of garment workers’ rights, particularly migrant garment workers’ rights, has been raised to authorities and the government many times in recent years and has been largely ignored. Home Secretary Priti Patel based this lack of response on “cultural sensitivities” and authorities not acting for fear of being ‘labeled as racist’ despite it being her job to uphold the law.

These issues have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic which raised the issue to as a part of a wider public health crisis. Garment workers being forced to continue to work throughout the first national lockdown has been closely associated with Leicester becoming the first area in the UK to be put into local lockdown. The welfare of migrant garment workers in the UK is therefore a crucial part of policy within the government’s COVID-19 response which also affects the local population drastically. This similarly impacts the British state through the loss of tax income, as these migrants’ employment is undocumented and reported. Indeed, one factory has already been charged with a tax avoidance strategy. If factories’ finances were closely monitored and workers’ paid ethical wages, tax could be more accurately collected. 

Main image source from LBTL 2020 report


The specifics of the migrant garment worker population in Leicester are mostly uncertain, due to the irregular nature of their immigration status and illegal practices of employers. However, as there are one thousand known garment factories in Leicestereach having around ten to twenty-five workers and roughly 33.6% of these workers are migrants, it can be estimated that there are anywhere between 3,300 - 8,300 migrants working in Leicester’s garment sector. That means migrant garment workers make up 0.94-2.3% of Leicester’s overall population of 355,218.


Similarly, the exact nature of their migration is also uncertain, although we have some rough information. For example, many migrant garment workers are irregular, however this has diverse meanings. Some have arrived irregularly, while others are in the UK regularly but do not have the right to work, so became irregular migrants once they started work in these factories. This emphasis on the right to work highlights that while migrant garment workers in Leicester voluntarily for economic reasons, others may be part of other groups, such as asylum seekers, who do not have the right to work in the UK until and if they gain refugee status. It is this irregular status which has significant impact on migrant garment workers and the wider effects of such treatment. 

There are various reasons why garment workers may migrate to work in Leicester (if they are migrating voluntarily) including better legal protections for workers in the UK, such as the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and a higher minimum wage than in other garment producing countries. For example, the minimum wage in Bangladesh is 8,000 takas a month, the equivalent of 85 euros. A worker could earn the same amount after less than nine hours on the UK National Minimum wage of £8.72 per hour. However, these legal protections are not always enforced and therefore do not meet the expectations of migrant workers. Indeed, Leicester has been referred to as being outside UK employment law.

It is also important to highlight the wider global context of the garment industry amid the Covid-19 pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic many fashion brands withheld payment from suppliers for orders which had already been placed and, in many cases, had already been produced or partly produced, leaving many garment workers and their dependents without an income. This sparked public outcry and the start of non-profit Remake’s #PayUp campaign, which remains ongoing over nine months after its launch.

Critique of Policy

The unethical working conditions and breaches of employment law in garment factories in Leicester have been known for several years and been reported on several times in the past decade, in so far as the exploitation in the city has been referred to several times as ‘an open secret’. These include reports by BBC and Channel 4 in 2010 and 2017, a 2015 report by University of Leicester and ETI, and later the issue being brought directly to the UK Government through the Environmental Audit Committee’s report, Fixing Fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability in February 2019. Despite these reports and awareness of the issue, the UK Government has done very little in direct response to migrant garments workers in Leicester. NGO Fashion Revolution highlights how ‘[m]inisters essentially rejected each and every recommendation in the [Fixing Fashion] report, often citing alternatives courses of action for the issues in question, without committing to any tangible policies’. By responding to the report in a vague and non-committal way, the Government ‘appears to be concerned and engaged,’ yet there is no policy change being made at all. Home Secretary Priti Patel has stated that the reason many of these illegal factories have not been investigated is due to ‘cultural insensitivities’. This highlights how the Government’s willingness to act on this issue, either through the creation of new policies or the enforcement of pre-existing policies, is due to the cultural and ethnic background of this group of migrants.

Whilst there have been no direct policies made in regards to this migrant demographic, there are two main areas of policy which do impact them: immigration policy and labour policy. The most notable aspects of these policies are the ‘hostile environment policy’ – a campaign against irregular immigration which began in 2012 and includes legislation such as the Immigration Act 2014 and Immigration Act 2016 - and the Modern Slavery Act 2015. These policies are in tension with each other, as the Modern Slavery Act 2015 seeks to uphold human rights and dignity of workers, whereas the ‘hostile environment policy’ seeks to remove that dignity in a ‘race to the bottom’ in order to deter (officially irregular) immigrants from coming to or staying in the UK.

The ‘hostile environment policy’ is key to the welfare of migrant garment workers in Leicester, as it is a key driver in the deterioration in working conditions of migrant garment workers in Leicester, and as a consequence also impacting on the working conditions of garment workers who are British citizens. The main aim of this policy is to ‘deny illegal immigrants access to work, housing and services, even bank accounts’, and as a result deter them from immigrating to the UK or force them to return to their country of origin. 

This policy means that irregular migrants are at a higher risk of exploitation and abuse as they frequently feel unable to come forward to report their exploitation or bring their employers to court for the fear that they will be incarcerated, separated from their families, or deported. Similarly, it means that irregular migrant workers are more likely to accept illegal wages where payment is cash-in-hand in order avoid official channels where they may be arrested by authorities. There have also been cases where factory owners have held documents proving that someone has the right to work in the UK from their employees, meaning that although they are regular migrants they have lost the means to prove so and would thus likely be treated by authorities as if they were irregular. Garment factories have frequently been the subject of immigration raids.  This further increases psychological trauma for the workers as well as heighten their anxiety around coming into contact with authorities. There are also migrant workers who, although they are in the UK regularly, do not have the entitlement to work and thus become irregular migrants through this decision to work. This would suggest that it is likely there are some migrant garment workers who are also asylum seekers – an already incredibly vulnerable group who are dependent on the government for their entire welfare and survival. Indeed, a state’s labour market can be seen as a key component of aiding integration, as a way for migrants to meet locals, make friends, foster a sense of belonging, learn about local attitudes and culture, and contribute to the economy.

These effects of these policies have not been uniform. The degree to which workers are affected is dependent on their migrant status, gender, and educational background (especially in terms of their English language abilities). As has already been established, migrant status is key due to the impacts of the ‘hostile environment policy’, first implemented in 2012. The causes of this restrictive policy are quite diverse, and are can be seen as echoing public anti-immigrant sentiment, as evidenced by Dempster and Hargrave (2017, 10), who highlight that the UK public has often favoured restrictive policies. This sentiment can be seen as exacerbated through the effects of the 2008 financial crash, Brexit, and the recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as the threat perception of immigration is thought to be a state of the nation issue, and the nation is undeniably in severe crisis. 

The impacts of the lack of response are felt more acutely depending on gender. As women are also much more likely to be discriminated against as a result of pregnancy, and are also subject to increased risk of sexual harassment and assault. Any reporting measures they could have taken have been made inaccessible to them as a result of the hostile environment and their likely precarious status. This is especially relevant as the garment industry has a very gendered workforce.

In addition to the issues caused by the ‘hostile environment policy,’ there are intersecting issues caused by the enforcement of the labour policies such as the Modern Slavery Act 2015. There have been concerns ‘raised by the Public Accounts Committee that the Government does not monitor whether statements made under the Modern Slavery Act comply with the legislation and has never used its powers to penalize companies that do not comply’. Without effective enforcement, the Modern Slavery Act cannot achieve its main aim ‘to tackle slavery, servitude, forced labour and human trafficking’. This affects all workers in the UK, not only migrant garment workers, however this demographic are more vulnerable to employers exploiting this lack of enforcement. This lack of enforcement of this law means that exploitation is normalized, not only for migrant workers but local workers too.

The Government’s response to this issue has also had previously unseen effects on the security of this group of migrants through the way they have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In June 2020, it emerged that garment factories in Leicester had been open throughout the first national lockdown along with numerous reports of furlough fraud, workers being forced to come into work while sick with COVID-19, workers wishing to isolate being denied pay, factories operating illegally throughout lockdown, and of workers being forced to work in conditions of modern slavery’. This has been linked by many parties, including NGOs, campaigners and politicians, to Leicester having high rates of COVID-19 earlier on in the year and being the first city to go into lockdown. Indeed, as people from ethnic minorities, particularly South Asian people, are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 - largely as a result socioeconomic factors such as the ability for workers to stay at home, housing quality, geographic location (e.g. in urban areas), this means that garment workers in Leicester are also disproportionately impacted as most are from ethnic minorities and a significant proportion of migrant garment workers in the city are from South Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh and Pakistan

Had the UK Government taken the appropriate measures in 2019, when the Fixing Fashion report was brought to them, to ensure that garment factories in Leicester were complying with ethical standards of working and that brands, such as those in the Boohoo Group, were more transparent about the standards in their supply chains, their subsequent COVID-19 control strategy may have been more effective in the city and surrounding areas. By acting to support migrant worker populations in the UK and ensure safe working conditions, the health and safety of the local population is also more protected. 


Migrant status is key to the labour conditions of migrant garment workers in Leicester as the restrictive policies included as part of the hostile environment prevent them from participating in unions, from reporting their working conditions to authorities, from appealing their wages, etc., for the fear they would be deported. As many of these workers are women, they are similarly unable to report incidents of sexual harassment or even assault in their workplaces for the same reasons. This therefore removes them of their agency. The perceived cultural differences of this migrant group are also a key factor in the lack of action by local authorities and national government, for the fear of being perceived as ‘racist’ and not being a seen as a priority compared to British citizens.

Policy Recommendations

  • Change policies of the 'hostile environment' which mean that public bodies (NHS, social services, etc.) would no longer be obliged to report irregular migrants to authorities and are able to offer their services fully. This would reduce the fear linked with accessing healthcare  and would reduce the absolute power many garment factory owners in Leicester have over their migrant employees.
  • Change the law so that asylum seekers have the right to work and kept separate from their asylum status – this has the potential to reduce the number of migrant garment workers working irregularly and therefore provides them with the opportunity to challenge exploitative practises of their employers without the fear of having their asylum claim denied or being deported back to the country they have fled.
  •  There are several legislative options to tackling the working conditions within fashion supply chains. One is a ‘Fit to Trade’ licensing scheme proposed by the British Retail Consortium and put to the Home Secretary in an open letter with signatories including many parliamentarians, as well as organisations from business, civil society and investors. This would ensure a minimum standard of protection for workers and have an emphasis on protecting legitimate and ethical businesses in the sector.
  •  In addition to this, new legislation needs to be created to ensure full transparency across all supply chains.  This would include details of working conditions and pay levels, names of suppliers and factory owners, and the date the brand last carried out an inspection of the production site. This would include severe fines for brands found to have modern slavery in their supply chains or who do not publish their supply chains, encouraging them to be more transparent and strict with their suppliers. A precedent has been set for this in new proposals put out by the Foreign Office that would impose sanctions on brands who are found to be buying and producing goods in the Uighur region of China. Making supply chains mandatorily transparent, similar instances of modern slavery better hidden elsewhere in the UK would be discovered and forced to change, in addition to holding factories account globally.
  •  New legislation should also ensure that all garment factories are registered with local authorities so that they can be more closely monitored.
  • Ensure that the Modern Slavery Act 2015 is enforced by ensuring that all brands, factories and producers are in compliance with ethical standards both in terms of pay and working conditions. For example, one method could be surprise inspections. This does not only apply to the fashion industry, but across all sectors. This could come in the form of new legislation similar to the new draft EU human rights due diligence law published this year/
  •  Create a more explicit hierarchy in who is responsible for dealing with these issues of exploitation. This would create less confusion between bodies such as the local police, local authorities, Home Office and CPS and provide clear means of holding both businesses and relevant public bodies to account for the oversight of these issues.
  • Increase the living wage and enforce it as a new minimum wage, so that consumers are less reliant on products produced through exploitative and slave labour.
  • In line with the UK Parliament’s declaration of a climate emergency in May 2019, to change public messaging around consumerism, to encourage members of the public to buy less and use more, therefore shifting from ‘fast fashion’ to ‘slow fashion’ and reducing the pressure on garment suppliers to produce thousands of new garments a day.
  • Change the way local authorities and police forces check the compliance of COVID-19 regulations, so that there are in-person inspections (with full PPE) to ensure all workers are safely distanced, all bodies are complying with lockdowns when they are in place, and to prove the legitimacy of furlough claims.

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If you liked this post you might like: 5 Easy Ways You Can Show Support to Garment Workers

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