Leicester’s clothing district, home to more than 1,000 factories, has received fewer than 60 health and safety inspections and just 28 fire inspections since October 2017, despite long-standing concerns over working conditions.
The city’s small clothing manufacturers, which employ up to 10,000 people, were also the subject of just 36 HMRC investigations into the payment of the national minimum wage between 2017 and March 2020, according to a request for access to the information filed by the Guardian.
Not only is the inspection rate low. HMRC has imposed penalties on less than 10 textile companies which have not paid minimum wage since 2017 and have claimed just over £ 100,000 in arrears involving 143 workers.
The figures highlight the low rate of regulatory oversight at Leicester factories despite the creation of a multi-agency group in October 2017 to try to solve their problems.
The group was formed after a 2015 report from the Ethical Trading Initiative, made up of retailers, unions and pressure groups, reporting illegally low wages and poor conditions.
Leicester East Labor MP Claudia Webbe said the figures were “absolutely shocking and devastating”.
“I think it is a shame that successive governments have neglected to act despite longstanding evidence of employer misconduct in Leicester’s garment industry,” she said.
She blamed austerity budget cuts on regulators, local authorities and firefighters over the past decade, which she said has reduced their ability to monitor working conditions.
Some buildings, including the former Imperial Typewriter Factory, which houses up to 40 small factories, have only been inspected once.
There have been nine calls for factory fires at garment factories in the main LE5 textile district since 2017, including a large fire that triggered the evacuation of neighboring premises in 2018. Other major fires were registered in garment factories in neighboring neighborhoods.
Of the 58 inspections carried out by the Health and Safety Executive since October 2017, 27 have taken place since April 1 of this year, when the coronavirus pandemic renewed focus on Leicester’s clothing industry. The HSE has not filed any complaints against textile companies across the country since 2017.
Conservative North West Leicestershire MP Andrew Bridgen raised the Leicester garment factories issues in parliament in January, when he said conditions were a national disgrace and described the region as “the west wild”. “If you take the regulatory oversight and the police out of everything, organized crime is going to take hold,” he said.
There are only four frontline HSE inspectors in Leicester and three trainees, although the team has managed to visit 45 textile and clothing companies since March.
Bridgen said: “We need an agency that has the power to investigate labor abuse and the power to use other agencies like HMRC. They all worked in silos. “
The government completed a consultation on creating a single labor market enforcement body in October last year, but has yet to act.
A spokesperson said: “We are committed to establishing a single labor rights enforcement body to provide workers with a clearer way to lodge a complaint and gain support, while offering a consistent approach to the application.
HSE said it was “determined to work in partnership with other enforcement agencies, both at the strategic and operational level, to share intelligence when needed, and take action to improve the working life of those who work in textiles and other industries ”. He said “there was no indication of significant health and safety issues” following inspections in 2018, 2019 and early 2020.
HMRC said, “We will continue to target employers who break the rules, ensuring that workers receive the wages they are legally entitled to.” He said workers can report abuses of the national minimum wage system online.
A spokesperson for the Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service said inspections had been carried out as part of its risk-based program, but had suspended the program after the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 in London “to fully focus on high rise residential buildings in Leicester. , Leicestershire and Rutland ”.
He said this “had an impact on the number of inspections we carried out in other premises, such as factories.”
Workers’ rights group Labor Behind the Label said the low inspection rate in Leicester highlighted “a nonchalant and nonchalant approach to labor market enforcement” under the current and previous governments.
A spokesperson for the group, Dominique Muller, said: “This has resulted in a situation where workers are exploited every day, where wage theft levels reach millions every week and brands can continue to squeeze suppliers. on prices again and again. “