How do you turn a profit on a £5 party dress, a £6 miniskirt or £3 bikini top if you’re a fashion house or online retailer?
You have them made in Leicester – in the vicinity of St Saviours Road to be precise – where there are around 1,000 clothes factories.
Some are concealed in terraced homes and garages but other companies proudly display the name of their business in bright letters outside.
Among the 35 staff at one particular factory – which supplies the online brand Boohoo – is Imtiaz, who is employed as a packer.
Ragtrade workshops in Leicester are used to produce incredibly cheap clothes for online retailers. Pictured: Workers at the Fazia fashion factory in Leicester continue to work despite the newly reimposed lockdown
Factories near St Saviours Road in Leicester pay staff as little as £4 an hour in order to turn a profit on cheap clothing supplied to online retailers including Boohoo. Pictured: A £5 party dress sold by Boohoo, advertised as ‘perfect for transitioning from day to play’
Working from 8am to 9pm, Imtiaz, 39, tells me he is paid only £4 an hour despite the minimum wage in Britain for those aged 25 and over being £8.72.
Hence the reason, perhaps, why this corner of the Midlands – locked down again this week due to a spike in cases – has become a manufacturing hub for certain cut-price popular brands.
Is there a place outside the sweatshops of the Far East where garments can be produced more cheaply? Doubtful.
Imtiaz arrived from Gujarat, India, on a tourist visa more than 20 years ago and he has not left the UK since.
He said: ‘Some workers have been feeling unwell but are too scared not to come to work as they might lose their jobs. I had some of the symptoms but didn’t want to tell the boss because they don’t like it if we don’t show up for work.’
Imtiaz is not alone. A female machinist at another factory, Faiza Fashion, spoke to the Mail this week and gave a chilling picture of life at these establishments.
The mother of three in her 50s, who we have decided not to name, said: ‘Three weeks ago, I wasn’t feeling well and there were others who also had flu-like symptoms. But what can you do? We are not rich people and need money to survive.’
She also said they are not provided with face masks or gloves from the factory.
Many will be surprised to learn that Faiza Fashion is still open like most of the clothes factories in Leicester despite the local lockdown.
The company also supplies Boohoo, Britain’s fastest-growing online fashion retailer, which incidentally during the lockdown advertises its £5 dress as ‘perfect for transitioning from day to play’.
A female machinist at another factory, Faiza Fashion, spoke to the Mail this week and gave a chilling picture of life at these establishments
Government guidelines might require non-essential shops to shut but factories are not subject to the same measures as long as they observe social distancing rules and follow protocols, including wearing face masks and the provision of sanitisers.
Our inquiries suggest a number of such establishments are not observing these rules. But, still, they remain open.
Imtiaz, who did not give his surname, epitomises the demographic that according to Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, has created the ‘perfect storm’ for the virus.
In an interview with LBC this week, the MP said: ‘We’ve got a much bigger Indian subcontinent population in Leicester, it tends to be multi-generational households.
‘So you’ve got young people going out, perhaps coming home with no symptoms and grandma and grandad go into hospital.
‘We also have a garment industry in Leicester which should have locked down but has worked for internet retailers throughout.’
The lockdown boundary map surrounding Leicester which has been enforced after spike in coronavirus cases
Can it be a coincidence that the area at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak is in the eastern side of the city where most of the garment factories are situated?
Such clothing businesses have become known locally as ‘dark factories’ echoing the ‘dark Satanic mills’ of William Blake’s famous verse describing the exploitative working practices after the Industrial Revolution.
The conditions are an open secret, or rather, Leicester’s ‘dirty secret’ and were investigated by Channel 4’s Dispatches in 2017.
They found factories making clothes for River Island, New Look, Boohoo and Missguided were paying workers as little as £3 an hour in conditions that fell short of health and safety standards.
And an inquiry by Parliament’s Human Rights Commission three years ago found that between a third and three quarters working in these factories were paid below minimum wage and were working in unsafe environments.
Asim Ali, 34, manager of Fazia Fashion which is located in lockdown area said: ‘We haven’t had any guidance from the Government or local authority on if we should close or remain open. But to be honest, we lost so much money during the first lockdown that we cannot afford to close’
Most are from minority ethnic groups, with around 33.6 per cent born outside the UK.
Yet not so long ago, Leicester had a regulated textile industry which was a source of pride as well as prosperity – enjoying the boast of being the ‘city that clothes the world’.
By the early 2000s orders ended up going to the other side of the world. The demand for ‘fast fashion’ – low wages and low prices – reversed this trend. Speed was the USP, which meant sourcing close to home.
Faiza Fashion is just one of the businesses which supplies Boohoo and sister brand PrettyLittleThing, said manager Asim Ali. But it does not deal directly with Boohoo or PLT as the work is sub-contracted to them.
The charity Labour Behind the Label has accused Boohoo of failing to do enough to monitor conditions at factories in Leicester.
The retailer said it would look into the claims but insisted it had ‘followed and adhered to all aspects of [Government] guidance’.
Boohoo was founded in 2006 by Mahmud Kamani and Carol Kane and the company is now worth more than £3billion.
Some retailers have severed ties with suppliers in the area for fear of being accused to making fat profits on the backs of workers like Imtiaz. A few blocks away from Faiza Fashion is Glory Fashion.
The owner Sajid Patel is in the process of renting the premises out and he believes ‘about 80 or 90 per cent’ of clothing factories are open at the moment and that not all of them were complying with lockdown requirements.
We also tried Cute Girl, which specialises in making clothes for young women.
The boss Richu Uppal, who lives in a £500,000 detached house on the outskirts of Leicester and drives a £20,000 Mercedes A Class, was not available to be interviewed.
Quiet streets in the centre of Leicester after the introduction of a local lockdown on Monday following a spike in the number of coronavirus cases
While the rest of Britain prepares to reopen, the city of Leicester has become a ghost town as authorities imposed a local lockdown after a spike in the number of cornavirus cases
But a family spokesman said: ‘We are open because everyone else is open. We closed for four weeks after the first lockdown in March but nobody has said factories need to close now.’ He added: ‘There is no clear guidance.’
It’s not just members of the Asian community that work in these factories. Bulgarians also make up a large proportion of the workforce.
Take Donka, 29, who earns £4 an hour as a packer in a number of garment factories. She too asks us not to reveal her surname as she tells a familiar story.
She said: ‘This is the busiest I’ve ever known it to be. The work is very hard and there is hardly any ventilation inside. Even when people are unwell they still go to work because they need the money.’
Mick Cheema, who owns an ethical clothing brand in the city called Basic Premier, said: ‘There is a history of unethical factories in the city. It has been widely reported but there has been no action from central or local government and it has become the norm.’
His views chime with the findings from a report published this week by Labour Behind the Label.
It said a worker told his employer that he tested positive for Covid-19 but was told to come in anyway and not to tell his colleagues of the test result.
So is it any wonder that the virus is soaring in this once proud city?
It is truly impossible to believe how this – and other abuses highlighted today – could be happening in 21st century Britain.
- Additional reporting: Vivek Chaudhary and Richard Marsden