Leicester’s fast fashion to die for: Cramped ragtrade workshops in the pariah city

How would you turn a profit on a £5 party dress, a £6 miniskirt or £3 bikini top if you’re a fashion house or on the web retailer? 

You ask them to 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 these business in bright letters outside.

Among the 35 staff at a definite factory – which supplies the on the web brand Boohoo – is Imtiaz, who’s employed as a packer. 

Ragtrade workshops in Leicester are used to produce incredibly cheap clothes for trusted online retailers. Pictured: Workers at the Fazia fashion factory in Leicester keep on 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’

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 could be paid only £4 an hour or so 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 several cut-price common brands.

Is there a spot outside the sweatshops of the Far East where garments could be produced more cheaply? Doubtful.

Imtiaz arrived from Gujarat, India, on a tourist visa more than 20 years ago and he has perhaps 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 simply because they don’t want it if we don’t arrive for work.’

Imtiaz just isn’t alone. A lady 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’ve decided perhaps not to name, said: ‘Three weeks ago, I wasn’t feeling well and there have been 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’re not given face masks or gloves from the factory.

Many will undoubtedly 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 on the web 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

A female machinist at still another factory, Faiza Fashion, spoke to the Mail this week and gave a chilling picture of life at these establishments

Government instructions might require non-essential shops to shut but factories aren’t subject to the same measures provided that they observe social distancing rules and follow protocols, including wearing face masks and the provision of sanitisers.

Our inquiries suggest numerous such establishments are not studying these rules. But, still, they remain open.

Imtiaz, who didn’t 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 teenagers going out, perhaps coming house or apartment 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

The lockdown boundary map surrounding Leicester that 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 nearly all of the garment factories are situated?

Such clothing businesses are becoming 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 lacking health and safety standards.

And an inquiry by Parliament’s Human Rights Commission 36 months ago unearthed 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'

Asim Ali, 34, manager of Fazia Fashion which is located in lockdown area said: ‘We have not had any guidance from the Government or local authority on if we ought to close or remain open. But to be honest, we lost so much money all through the first lockdown that individuals cannot afford to close’

Most are from minority ethnic groups, with around 33.6 % born outside the UK. 

Yet not so sometime ago, Leicester had a regulated textile industry which was a source of pride as well as prosperity – enjoying the feature being the ‘city that clothes the world’.

By the early 2000s orders finished 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 simply one of the businesses which supplies Boohoo and sister brand PrettyLittleThing, said manager Asim Ali. But it generally 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 might 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 totally 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, had not been 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

Quiet streets in the centre of Leicester after the introduction of an area lockdown on Monday carrying out a spike in the quantity 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

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 household 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 only members of the Asian community that work in these factories. Bulgarians also make up a big proportion of the workforce.

Take Donka, 29, who earns £4 an hour or so as a packer in a number of garment factories. She too asks us perhaps 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 quite hard and there is almost no ventilation inside. Even when people are unwell they still go to work simply 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 the 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 could it be any wonder that the virus is soaring in this once proud city?

It is truly impossible to believe how this – along with other abuses highlighted today – could be happening in 21st century Britain.

  • Additional reporting: Vivek Chaudhary and Richard Marsden

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