Modern day slavery in 21st century Britain up to 10,000 people could be victims just in the textile factories
The prevalence of slavery in 21st-century Britain is an often hidden problem but nonetheless continues to grow.
A number of sectors seem to attract slave labour. They include car washes, nail bars, construction, agriculture and factories, domestic service, catering and the sex industry.
Modern slavery is present in every single area of the UK. You probably see people trapped in slavery on a regular basis. It might be someone working in a private home on your street, the man working in the car wash in town, or the cleaner who empties the office bin every night.
The tragedy of the 39 people who died in the back of a lorry in Essex brought the whole issue of modern slavery to the forefront last year.
In the eyes of the law there is a distinction between illegal work and modern slavery – with the former you are a criminal, and the latter a victim – but in reality the line is not so clearly defined. Many who are here to work move between the two. Across the UK, thousands end up being exploited and unpaid in our restaurants, car washes, agricultural fields, care homes, hotels and nail bars – visible but unseen.
Official statistics say up to 15,000 people are trapped in a form of modern slavery in the UK – although those working on the frontline believe this figure to be a huge underestimate. Our government says that with the 2015 Modern Slavery Act it is a global leader in cracking down on this practice, yet prosecutions remain low. In 2017-18 there were only 185 convictions for slavery and trafficking crimes – a fraction of the cases reported to the authorities.
The number of people identified as victims of modern slavery has been rising year on year, with over 10,000 people referred to authorities in 2019. The real number of people trapped in slavery is estimated to be much higher.
Leicester an open secret brushed aside
Asked if claims of widespread exploitation in the city are an “open secret”, deputy mayor Adam Clarke replies: “It’s just open.”
The ongoing situation of up to 10,000 garment workers in Leicester, who are feared to be trapped in conditions of modern slavery and paid £3 an hour, have been raised in Parliament.
Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, raised a question on Tuesday about the continuing state of working conditions in factories supplying the UK’s booming fast fashion industry, and sought a meeting with business secretary Kelly Tolhurst for clarity over enforcement of the national minimum wage.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, has come under fire over claims that “cultural sensitivities” prevented a robust response to allegations of ‘worker exploitation‘ in Leicester, with critics arguing cuts to regulators, the decision to limit inspections and an absence of unions were the biggest causes.
The Times reported: The home secretary says fears “cultural sensitivities” have prevented police from tackling illegal sweatshops in Britain’s fast-fashion industry amid concerns that they would be accused of racism.
Priti Patel has privately raised concerns that police and other government agencies have turned a blind eye to exploitation in Leicester’s textile warehouses and factories in the same way as the grooming scandal in Rotherham was ignored for years.
UK authorities have found no evidence of modern slavery offences in the first round of inspections on Boohoo subcontractors in Leicester, underlining the challenge of tackling allegations about the city’s illegal garment factories.
Over the past week seven separate government agencies visited nine premises in Leicester, prompted by allegations about illegal work practices that Boohoo and Priti Patel, home secretary, have described as “appalling”. The fast-fashion retailer has lost more than a third of its market value since a Sunday Times investigation exposed longstanding concerns about textile workers in Leicester being paid less than the minimum wage.
Ministers also raised fears the cramped, unsafe garment factories helped make the city a hotspot for coronavirus. But in spite of the concerted government effort to uncover abuses, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) has admitted that “no enforcement has been used during the visits”. “Officers have not at this stage identified any offences under the Modern Slavery Act,” the agency said.
The National Crime Agency, which also announced the visits to textile factories, said it would not give a “running commentary” on the investigation, but added the “visits are likely to continue”. One person briefed on the investigations said authorities were reluctant to publish further details over fears the sweatshops could move out of the city. Boohoo on Wednesday attempted to shore up investor confidence by launching an independent review of its UK supply chain following allegations that left its board “shocked and appalled”.
Ten days after the Guardian reported on fears that conditions in sweatshops were a factor in Leicester’s surge in coronavirus cases and resulting lockdown, reports emerged on Sunday that Patel was considering new laws to curb modern slavery.
Patel had “privately raised concerns” that police and government agencies were turning a blind eye to the problem because they might be labelled racist, the Sunday Times said.
Patel was reported to have compared the issues in Leicester, where south Asian factory owners run an industry that largely relies on immigrant and BAME labour, to the Rotherham grooming scandal.
But critics said her reported views failed to account for the fact that in contrast to the Rotherham scandal, parliamentary reports, regulators and media coverage had raised concerns publicly about Leicester for years.
“It’s outrageous,” said Claudia Webbe, the Labour MP for Leicester East where many of the factories are based, who raised the issue in her maiden speech to the Commons in February. “It’s not about the fear of being labelled racist, it’s not about cultural sensitivity, it’s about the failure of government to protect mainly women from migrant communities who have been seriously exploited by unscrupulous employers.”
“The government has been in power for 10 years,” she added. “It needs to properly fund the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities if it’s serious about making a change.”
Claudia Webbe also tweeted “Leicester’s Garment Industry and the crisis it presents is just a microcosm of the global assault on worker’s rights
Under the Tories zero hour contracts, poor pay & unscrupulous employers flourished
Billionaires exist because the working class, including migrants are exploited”
Leicester’s Garment Industry and the crisis it presents is just a microcosm of the global assault on worker’s rights— Claudia Webbe MP (@ClaudiaWebbe) July 12, 2020
Under the Tories zero hour contracts, poor pay & unscrupulous employers flourished
Billionaires exist because the working class, including migrants are exploited pic.twitter.com/1FKK663Twt
A 2018 Financial Times report noted that Chris Grayling had said in 2012, when he was the employment minister: “If we try to legislate out all risk, we will lose jobs to other places.”
While sectors including stoneworking and furniture manufacture are subjected to “targeted proactive intervention” by the HSE, the textiles industry is in category D, the group deemed to be lowest risk, and therefore faces a “principally reactive” approach.
The office of the director of labour market enforcement said in its 2018 strategy that the average employer could expect an inspection by the HMRC’s minimum wage team about once every 500 years.
While bodies including the HSE and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority made a number of visits to factories in Leicester last week, those interventions were made with the consent of business owners, raising concerns that serious offenders will simply refuse the bodies access.
Amid ongoing concerns that whistleblowers in Leicester are afraid to come forward because of the risk of retribution, it is understood that a new strategy from the interim labour market enforcement director, Matthew Taylor, will propose strengthening powers for regulators in circumstances where widespread reports of abuse are not followed by actionable intelligence.
Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said: “The extent of government cuts to enforcement agencies and inspectorates over the years is scandalous.”
She argued that the fact Leicester’s garment factories are largely without union representation was a more significant factor than cultural sensitivity in abuses there. “There is no better way to support workers on a sustainable basis than a union,” she said. “If workers in exploited conditions just had the right to speak to someone, that would be important. Rights aren’t worth the paper they’re written on unless you can enforce them.”
The GMB’s Leicester representative Mark Mizzen said barriers to recruitment were raised by the nature of Leicester’s factories and workshops. “The great fear is that if we’re outside these factories, anybody seen talking to us could be victimised,” he said. “You’re talking about many small units with 20 workers, so it’s much harder to get involved with trying to organise.”