The city of Leicester has been in the news because of its Covid-19 hot-spots and its local lockdown.
According to figures from Public Health England, the level of Covid-19 cases in Leicester is almost 15 times that of Derby, another city in the East Midlands, and almost 25 times that in Nottingham, which is also in the East Midlands.
However, that is not the only reason why Leicester has been in the news. There have also been fresh revelations about its “fast fashion” sweatshops, which comprise part of the city’s garment industry.
In those sweatshops, people work in appalling and unsafe conditions that have rightly been described as “modern slavery”.
Indeed, the two issues may well be related. The campaign group Labour Behind the Label has claimed that the cramped working conditions in the sweatshops may have contributed to the spread of the disease in the city.
There is certainly strong evidence of sweatshops continuing to operate during the pandemic without social distancing, which would be all but impossible in such obviously confined conditions.
Covid-19 is a comparatively new problem, but the Leicester sweatshops and “modern slavery” have been around for decades and it’s not that people haven’t known about them.
Back in 2010, the Channel 4 Dispatches programme conducted an undercover investigation on fast fashion workshops in Leicester. It revealed “dangerous, pressurised sweatshop conditions”.
Employees were working in cramped and over-heated conditions, with unsanitary toilets, and were being paid only half the legal minimum wage. Since then, a decade has passed, but little has changed and many workers are still receiving poverty pay.
Many of the workers are of South Asian origin, which is not altogether surprising since one-third of the population of Leicester was born abroad.
The workers are mostly women, many of them speak little English and exploitative employers are not checking the identity and legality of their employees.
The Dispatches programme was titled Fashion’s Dirty Secret and it lifted the lid on the appalling conditions and the scandal that the sweatshops were stitching garments for major retail chains.
In 2018, a national newspaper investigation, entitled Dark Factories, exposed the exploitative practices in the Leicester garment industry and found that, although key organisations had discussed the situation in Leicester, little had been done to address the problem.
Leicester is a sizeable city, a bit larger than Belfast, but it is not so big that it is an unmanageable city and the failure to tackle the issue has been described as a “national shame”.
Andrew Bridgen MP described it as “Leicester’s dirty secret” and said: “These illegal businesses are not only keeping their workers in miserable conditions, they’re also undermining the marketplace for legitimate businesses to make a living in a very difficult market. It’s a national shame.”
The primary culpability for this form of modern slavery lies with the employers, who put profit before people.
But those responsible for inspections and for enforcing the law have a lot of questions to answer.
Why has there not been more robust and effective enforcement? Retail chains which purchase their clothing from these factories are also culpable and deserve to be named and shamed. Indeed, as the scandal becomes better known, what will be the reaction from consumers? There is such a thing as ethical shopping.
And finally, where is the outrage from those who rage about many things, but seem to remain silent about this stain on one of our major cities?
Over recent months there have been thousands of people out on the streets demonstrating about historic slavery. Indeed, in Leicester, some protesters were even targeting a statue of Gandhi, whom they accused of racism!
Historians may well want to debate the views of Gandhi about race, but is that really the most pressing issue in the city at this time?
Surely, modern slavery is a much more pertinent and pressing problem. So, why the silence? And why the lack of concern about the victims of this exploitation?
Asian lives matter just as much as black lives, so where is the outrage? And why are we not seeing it?