Claudia Webbe, Trade Unions, and the Fight to End Sweatshop Exploitation in Leicester

Claudia Webbe sweatshops

Once upon a time Leicester had high hopes for Keith Vaz: that was in 1987 when Vaz was first elected to Parliament. But Vaz was never really a man of the people. So, not long after entering Parliament he ditched those socialists who campaigned to get him elected and relaunched his career as one committed to serving the ruling-class. This transformation was most visibly seen in 1991 when he backed the Gulf War.

The residents of Vaz’s old constituency, Leicester East, were therefore mightily relieved when Vaz was replaced with Claudia Webbe — a socialist MP who represents a clean break with her predecessor’s toxic legacy of careerism.

But not all is well as Vaz still maintains a strong powerbase in Leicester and last year even managed to wrangle getting ‘elected’ to a leading position of authority within Webbe’s Constituency Labour Party (CLP). This is despite the fact that the disgraced and longstanding chair of Vaz’s CLP, a bitter and jaded man name John Thomas, publicly quit the Labour Party during last year’s General Election in order to better attack Jeremy Corbyn.

In recent months however the main thing (perhaps only thing) that Vaz has done since losing his parliamentary seat is to support a right-wing anti-Muslim religious pressure group called Insight UK in organising a PR stunt in defence of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi (which had been threatened by a petition of all things). And as we already know, Keith Vaz — the eternal hypocrite — in addition to being a warmonger and supporter of far-right politicians in India is no friend of workers in this country, and in recent years has remained studiously silent about the existence of a huge sweatshop industry within his own constituency.

Yet in contrast to Vaz’s disgraceful silence on the sweatshop trade, Claudia Webbe talked openly about this troubling issue in her parliamentary maiden speech. She talked passionately about the “unionised factories” that her father worked in on Green Lane Road, and contrasted those better days with the present situation “in Leicester’s garment industry [where] today many workers, overwhelmingly women, earn well below the minimum wage — as little as £3 an hour in conditions that most people would find unthinkable in modern Britain.” But understanding that workers can and will fightback she went on to say:

“That is the legacy of Tory deindustrialisation, yet Leicester is the place where working women fought back. It was Asian women who went on strike for equal pay at Leicester’s Imperial Typewriter Company factory, and it was those women who led the way in equal pay, race equality, and employment. I pay tribute to them.​”

 

Now in response the Tories ongoing attempts to lay for the blame for Leicester’s sweatshops wholly at the door of our city’s Labour Council and our three Labour MP’s (who of course could have done alot more), Webbe has responded with a very clear and positive message for change saying:

“We have seen a government simply brush the issue under the carpet, allowed zero-hour contracts and poor pay to flourish whilst rejecting every single recommendation from a select committee report. This could have actually addressed the problem whilst the mainstream media, of course, sought to demonise migrants as not worthy.

“It is important to understand that the combined power of the political elite, media and big business has created and sustained the disaster capitalism where our communities are collateral damage. Leicester’s garment industry of course, and the crisis that it presents, is actually just a microcosm of the global assault on workers rights.

“Many of the workers who approached me for help have an immigration status of ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ are ineligible to access Statutory Sick Pay and are employed by firms which have no union recognition and where health and safety measures have not been implemented at all. The crisis has demonstrated the need for unionised accountable workplaces that prioritise employee well-being above all else.

“All workplaces in my view must adhere to health and safety measures and no-one should be forced to work in unsafe conditions. The government must ensure that all of us, regardless of our immigration status, can afford to stay safe during the continued lockdown. Its true, billionaires exist because the working-class including migrants are exploited. We must end this. A wealth tax to make billionaires pay their fair share could not come sooner than now!” (July 12, 2020)

 

This is a good start, but Webbe, like all Labour members, must now think carefully about the opposition they will continue to face from the rightwing leadership of their own political party (let alone from the blue Tories) in pushing for a serious tax on the billionaire-class. Maybe Webbe and others will seriously consider working with other socialists outside of the Labour Party in helping launch a new democratic and socialist alternative.

Either way, now is the time for immediate action. And the next step for all socialists and trade unionists in Leicester (and further afield) must be to join together to launch a mass campaign to being an end to all sweatshops – and in building for such a campaign activists can take inspiration from the United States where just last week socialists won an important victory in the battle to tax the super-rich (see “Amazon TAXED! Lessons of the Tax Amazon victory in Seattle”). Solidarity!

 

 

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