The home secretary is considering introducing new laws to tackle modern slavery, following allegations of mistreatment among workers in the UK’s fast-fashion industry.
Priti Patel reportedly believes the police and local councils are avoiding tackling illegal sweatshops over fears of being accused of racism. According to The Sunday Times, the home secretary claimed ‘cultural sensibilities’ are causing officials to turn a blind eye to illegal sweatshops.
Ms Patel is reportedly now considering a crackdown on current modern slavery legislation which is deemed ‘not fit for purpose’, following allegations brought against budget fashion brand Boohoo.
A source close to Ms Patel was reported as saying: ‘This scandal has been hiding in plain sight and there are concerns cultural sensibilities could be in part to blame for why these appalling working practices haven’t been properly investigated.’
An investigation found employees working at a supplier in Leicester for the fast-fashion brand were allegedly being paid as little as £3.50 an hour and working in unsafe conditions.
Boohoo said it was ‘shocked an appalled’ by the accusations and appointed a top lawyer to look into conditions at the factory. It also pledged to spend £10 million tackling malpractice.
Concerns have been raised by officials that poor working conditions in textile factories are an ‘open secret’ in Leicester, with many employees of Asian descent allegedly suffering exploitation.
Police contact for the Sikh community in Leicester, Raj Mann, agreed that officials in the area turn a blind eye to the issues amid fears of appearing discriminatory.
He said: ‘The local authorities have known these sweatshops exist for decades but they’ve been loath to do anything about it for fear of being accused of picking on immigrant or refugee communities, as a lot of the exploited workers are of Indian background.
‘Within the Asian community people generally turn a blind eye to workers in the community who are on less than the minimum wage. They see it as being better than earning nothing at all.’
Britain’s National Crime Agency along with partners in the police and government said they were inspecting several businesses in the city to assess modern slavery claims.
After the allegations emerged, Boohoo had more than £1 billion wiped from its share value in just two days.
Its brands, including PrettyLittleThing and BoohooMan, were also temporarily dropped from retailers such as Asos, Next, Very and Zalando, while awaiting the outcome of the investigation.
Independent anti-slavery commissioner, Sara Thornton, financial difficulties amid the pandemic have made people across the country more susceptible to exploitation in the workplace.
She said: ‘As people have lost their jobs, they are increasingly desperate and will take exploitative work because at that point it’s the most rational option for them.
‘On the other side is that if employers are feeling desperate about getting their businesses back on track, they might also feel that they want to cut corners,” she said.
‘At the moment the home secretary can injunct a company and require them to make a modern slavery statement. That’s never happened in five years but that’s as powerful as it ever gets at the moment and I think it should be more.’
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