New analysis from the ONS shows that in the UK, women working in garment factories are four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than women in any other occupation, including caring roles. Of this group, women in sewing machinist roles have the highest fatality rate, with 64.8 deaths per 100,000. The average rate of death for working age women is 16.8 per 100,000.
This stark statistic does not come as a surprise to labour rights advocates. In June 2019, Labour Behind the Label published a report into unsafe working conditions in the Leicester factories which supply fast-fashion brand Boohoo. Investigations showed that some factories operated throughout the lockdowns with no social distancing measures in place. We even heard reports of workers who were told by managers to continue working in the factory despite testing positive for Coronavirus. This failure to protect workers takes place within an industry which capitalises on workers’ fears of retribution or job loss, leaving workers afraid to speak out.
These damming figures not only reflect the actions of unscrupulous factory owners but are the inevitable outcome of supply chains built to protect brands, leaving workers in extremely precarious employment and vulnerable to exploitation. Whilst workers have literally put their lives on the line for jobs which often pay less than half the minimum wage, the brands who they produce clothes for have amassed obscene profit throughout the pandemic.
Boohoo’s pre-tax profits soared by 51% year on year to £68.1m in the six months to 31st August 2020. This is not a coincidence, Boohoo increased their orders during the pandemic, leading to some factories almost doubling their staff to keep up with online orders, making social distancing impossible. Boohoo’s prosperity throughout the pandemic is intrinsically linked with the exploitative labour practices which have left workers underpaid and exposed to Covid-19.
Not only have workers been let down by their employers and brands, but they have also been failed by the government. The government has neglected to properly legislate on occupational safety and health for workers throughout the pandemic, particularly for workers in low-paid roles. Furthermore, the HSE failed to undertake proper inspections of workplaces, including at the height of the pandemic when inspections were halted altogether.
The vast majority of workers in the UK garment industry are from ethnic minority backgrounds, with around a third born outside of the UK. As Public Health England identified that death rates from Covid-19 were the highest among people of Black and Asian ethnic groups, it is particularly shameful that workers have not been offered better protection.
In the light of these statistics, concerted action by government and brands is needed to ensure that all workers in the UK garment industry are protected from labour rights abuses and unsafe working conditions. This must mark an end to unacceptable purchasing practices which drive prices down and demand unrealistic production times, encouraging sub-contracting and exploitative labour practices.