Some Examples of Organisational Responses to Racism and Sweatshop Abuses in Leicester (2020-21)

March 2020: The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) worked in collaboration with Socialist Alternative in an attempt to help kick off a campaign for workers’ rights in Leicester during the pandemic. Leaflets were distributed door-to-door and in workplaces that then advertised a public meeting that was held online on March 24 (the meeting was titled “Full sick pay for all workers”).

Throughout the pandemic members of Socialist Alternative continued working closely with the Bakers Union to fight for workplace rights with both groups playing a leading role in working with the Leicester and District Trades Union Council to initiate street campaigning to help unionise sweatshop workers. The first “join a union” stall that was organised on Green Lane Road took place on September 19 (seven people gave out approximately 300 leaflets – with text in five languages — in less than 2 hours). Although local representatives of the relevant trade unions were invited to support the bimonthly stalls, only the Bakers Union actively backed this organising initiative. Of course, individuals who were members of other trade unions continued to participate in the “join a union” stalls.

June 6: Incredible scenes” at the Black Lives Matter protest in Leicester. It was “difficult to tell how many people were there because of the social distancing” with the final best estimates suggesting that more than 4,000 people filled out the streets around the Clock Tower.

June 8: Around a thousand people took part in another massive Black Lives Matter protest/vigil in Victoria Park to take the knee to remember the murder of George Floyd.

June 27: Around 200 people attended a Black Lives Matter protest in Leicester city centre demanding #Justice4ShukriAbdi.

June 30: Labour behind the Label publish their report “Boohoo and COVID-19: The people behind the profits.”

July 10: the Leicester and District Trades Union Council released a joint press statement with the Leicester Unemployed Workers Centre (LUWC) that pointed out that “the major fashion Brands… had abandoned Leicester”. The statement explained:

“Community meetings with the Brands [that purchase clothing from local factories] had taken place at and had been chaired by Highfields Centre, Leicester, over the previous year because of its long 40 years plus history of working to tackle systematic inequality and poverty in the area… A proposal called ‘Community & Trade Union initiatives to stamp out modern slavery’ was produced by Leicester Unemployed Workers Centre last year and was supported by Highfields Centre in its lead role. It included a two pronged community development approach, community infrastructure support and mutual organisations – trade unions – with the organising of workers industrially where there is little undertaken locally.

“Positive discussion took place with the Brands led by Highfields Centre and follow-up meetings with the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). The ETI amended the proposal so that it could be acceptable to the Brands. It would have, for example, involved employing dedicated workers working door-to-door. We were told in February 2020 that the Brands had rejected Leicester. That Leicester was bad for their image.”

July: Hope for Justice and Slave Free Alliance join the Leicester Labour Market Partnership.” (In October, Unseen also join the Partnership.) The launch of the Leicester Labour Market Partnership in October 2019 was “led by Leicester City Council and consisting of representation from the HSE, HMRC, BEIS, the Police and the CAB”. The council appointed a Community Safety (Labour Market) Co-ordinator – a role currently filled by Aleksandra Majewska who formerly worked for HMRC where she “co-ordinated their response on threats and harm caused by modern-day slavery and labour abuse.”

July: CitizensAdvice Leicestershire advertise for a “Community Engagement Officer” job as part of Project Fairpay (“fixed term for 6 months, with possibility of extension depending on funding”). The successful candidate was “to run a project in Leicester City with the dual aims of supporting individual garment industry workers to access the information and training they need to achieve the pay and employment conditions they are entitled to; and gathering data and evidence to support the work of CitizensAdvice and partners, including Leicester City Council’s Textile Compliance Task Force, the Ethical Trading Initiative, Hope for Justice, Slave Free Alliance etc., to influence policy and legal change within the garment industry as a whole.” The successful applicant, Shaista Amiza, was eventually appointed in October 2020.

August 2: With regard to the issue of Black Lives Matter: “The City Mayor has appointed Cllr Sue Hunter as Assistant City Mayor [for Tackling Racism and Disadvantage] to lead this response in recognition of the failures of society to tackle inequality and the importance of achieving real and lasting change.” The council notes that “£500k has been set aside in the 2021-2022 capital budget to support this work” and they explain:

“As Assistant City Mayor, Cllr Hunter is engaged in ongoing dialogue and consultation to hear the voices of local communities and organisations. From this we have built a series of key themes and areas of work which are outlined below.

“Internally, a working group comprised of senior council officers and a cross-section of staff, including our existing Black Workers Support Group, will drive the work. An external reference group comprising key city and community voices, including trade unions, the voluntary sector, relevant community groups and the universities, will be important in shaping and informing our work.”

August 24:The elected mayor of Leicester, Sir Peter Soulsby, and the Regional Secretary of TUC Midlands, Lee Barron, have today written to a number of major UK fashion retailers, including Boohoo, ASOS, TK Maxx, Missguided, River Island, Next and New Look regarding poor health and safety and employment practices amongst garment manufacturers, many of whom are based in Leicester.” This letter invited the fashion retailed to join with trade union officials to attend a “summit meeting on 29th September at City Hall, Leicester”. The letter also asked the companies to sign up to the following agreement:

“Here the undersigned commit to an agreed way in which our procurement procedures will be amended to help to ensure that all our products are ethically manufactured. We commit to only procure garments from UK manufacturers who:

  • “Agree to recognise a trade union and allow site access to representatives of the union to recruit, support and represent members.
  • “Provide appropriate training and facility time to elected trade union representatives and health and safety representatives so they can properly advise on matters of health and safety and employment law.
  • “Engage with trade union representatives to ensure that work is being carried out by the unionised workforce and is not being subcontracted out to a third party without union recognition.”

Some positive movement has been made with regard a couple of brands saying they will ensure that a single trade union can have access to factories in their supply chain, but it remains to be seen whether these few companies/brands are serious about allowing such access to continue.

September was the deadline for applications for a fully funded PhD scholarship to study “Black Lives Matter Leicester” at the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre (with the support of Leicester City Council) under the supervision of Dr. Kennetta Hammond Perry. “As calls for change gather momentum, this PhD study will focus on what these critical questions mean for a city such as Leicester where over half of the population are from racially and ethnically minoritized communities.”

November: With regard to the problems facing the garment industry in Leicester the Trade Union Congress submitted the following “written evidence” (9 pages) to Parliament.

November: Crimestoppers note that “In partnership with Leicestershire Police, Leicestershire Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner, Leicester City Council, Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) and De Montfort University, we have joined up to launch a new campaign to tackle the issue of modern slavery through forced labour in Leicestershire’s Garment Sector.” The new six-week campaign was launched at the Leicester Business Festival on Monday 2 November, with a special Modern Slavery in Business event. The campaign has the hashtag #EndGarmentSectorSlavery and is predominantly online.” “Other campaign activities will include bus stop advertising and an e-newsletter being sent to all Leicestershire garment manufacturing businesses to raise awareness and to promote how to contact Crimestoppers, to encourage people to speak up anonymously to get victims safeguarded.” The campaign was launched at the Leicester Business Festival Crimestoppers Event.

January 2021: Leicester City Council announced they were investing £300,000 in a joint project “with leading training provider Fashion Enter Ltd and local clothing company Ethically Sourced Products Ltd to develop a new textiles skills centre –the Leicester Fashion Technology Academy (LFTA).” “The new training centre will be based on the top floor of Ethically Sourced Products’ factory premises in Spinney Hills.” And the “company’s expansion into its new premises was supported by a £1.5million loan from the city council’s investment fund.”

February 2021 was the closing date to apply for a new job titled “Race Equality Officer (Black Lives Matter)” that was created by Leicester City Council. “Based in the City Mayor’s Office at City Hall,” the job description notes that the applicant “will report to the Council’s Equalities Manager and work closely with the Executive Councillors for Equalities and Black Lives Matter, providing support in undertaking research, co-ordinating working groups and project managing key areas of work. You will help to develop, co-ordinate and monitor an action plan to tackle race inequality and disadvantage and support the council in measuring the difference this is making.”

2021: Leicester Unemployed Workers Centre (LUWC) which “is run by voluntary trustees, was proudly formed out of the trade union movement.” “LUWC Limited works to support those in poverty and financial hardship. It also works with individuals and organisations to find ways to stop and reverse the risk of people falling in poverty and financial hardship based on facts.” Over the past few years, the LUWC has been attempting to help launch a project in collaboration with the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) to address sweatshop abuses in Leicester a project which is now finally being set-up. They note on their web site that:

“Leicester is the first area within the UK to be targeted by the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) in its work to combat sweatshop working conditions. Previously, the ETI although based in the UK, operated exclusively overseas. LUWC Limited has been working closely with the ETI to try to tackle modern slavery in Leicester in the Apparel trades and beyond. 

“A proposal for community action was put together with the charity Highfields Centre, the ETI and Brands only for the Brands to declare strategically that [in early 2020] they were withdrawing from Leicester. Three months later Covid-19 exposed modern slavery practices in Leicester in the Textiles Industry and the role of the Brands.

“Now, the ETI community proposal supported by Leicester & District Trades Union Council is back on the agenda with the lessons learned from here available for the relief of poverty across the country.”

March 30, 2021:City mayor Peter Soulsby and deputy city mayor Cllr Adam Clarke are calling for the Government to make good on its manifesto commitment to create a single enforcement body that would cover all aspects of labour abuse, exploitation and poor working practices.” A Council press release notes that these demands were raised “as the city council publishes the first annual report of the Leicester Labour Market Partnership. The partnership was set up by the city mayor in October 2019, bringing together key agencies that deal with matters such as health and safety in textiles factories, modern-day slavery and payment of the minimum wage.” They go on to add that “the city council is currently working on bringing new organisations into the partnership, including the Slave Free Alliance and its parent charity Hope for Justice, which is locating staff members to Leicester.”

March 31, 2021: Two full-time jobs as “Community Engagement & Outreach Officer” were advertised (on March 31) to help improve local garment workers’ lives in association with the newly formed Leicester Garment Workers Advice and Support Project (L-GWASP). This work is “initially funded for 12 months by major clothing brands and trade union, specifically to respond to the well publicised issues about Leicester’s garment factories and their workers.” These jobs form “a key part of the Apparel & Garment Merchandise Public Private Protocol’s activities, and funding is expected to continue for (at least) a second year.” Current brands participating in the AGM PPP process include Boohoo. NGOs / Civil Society organisation involved are “ACT, Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), Fashion Roundtable, Focus On Labour Exploitation (FLEX), Highfields Centre, Hope for Justice, Labour Behind The Label, Leicester Unemployed Workers Centre Limited, Slave Free Alliance, TUC.”

One comment

  1. Hi Michael, This is a really interesting blog with so much information about organisations working to do something about modern day slavery in the garment sector in Leicester. Would you or Tom be able to send a letter to the Evington Echo (evingtonecho@gmail.com) (final copy date 13th May) to update our Evington readers about modern day slavery issues in Leicester and organisational responses, which Simran Radia has written about previously.
    Best wishes and thanks,
    Helen Pettman
    (Editor, Evington Echo)

    Note: Evington Bicycle Club is part of Friends of Evington. The charity also manages the Evington Echo and Evington in Bloom.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s