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* Women sewing machinists have highest fatality rate of any female occupation
* Labour Behind the Label and unions call for “urgent” regulation of fast-fashion industry
* Retailers must be held liable for supply chain abuses, say campaigners

Women working in Britain’s garment factories are four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than the average woman worker, according to new analysis published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS)[i].

The analysis of official statistics reveals that women sewing machinists have the highest Covid-19 fatality rate (64.8 deaths per 100,000) of any female occupation.  

This rate is higher than for women working in at-risk sectors like caring, leisure and other service occupations (27.3 deaths per 100,000).

Unsafe conditions and insecure work

These shocking figures are a stark reminder of working conditions in Britain’s garment industry – both during and before the pandemic.

Last summer Labour Behind the Label published a report into workers’ rights violations in Leicester garment factories[ii].  At the same time, the city of Leicester was placed in special measures after huge outbreaks of Covid-19 were discovered at its clothing factories.

Investigations revealed that some factories operated throughout the lockdowns with no social distancing measures in place and staff paid below the minimum wage[iii].

Campaigners say working conditions at these factories have been “an open secret” for years and are calling for much tougher regulation of the garment industry by the government.

Dominique Muller from Labour Behind the Label said:

“The failings of the government approach to labour enforcement and health and safety alongside the failure of brands taking responsibility for the workers has led to a perfect storm of exploitative and dangerous working conditions. Brands, unions and government agencies must now work together to create a binding set of obligations to protect those most vulnerable.”

Joint liability laws

Fast fashion firm Boohoo was heavily criticised over its oversight of its supply chain in Leicester.

The Guardian newspaper found that 18 Boohoo suppliers[iv] had failed to prove they paid workers the minimum wage. But under current law Boohoo is not properly liable for the behaviour of its sub-contractors. 

Labour Behind the Label and unions say this is wrong and are calling for mandatory human rights due diligence legislation.

In addition to companies being held liable for supply chain abuses, Labour Behind the Label is also calling for:

  • An end to unacceptable purchasing practices which drive prices down and demand unrealistic production times, encouraging sub-contracting and exploitative labour practices. 
  • Access to factories to for trade unions to ensure that adequate standards are in place to protect workers. 
  • Concerted action by government and brands to ensure that all workers in the UK garment industry are protected from labour rights abuses and unsafe working conditions.

Lee Barron, TUC Midlands Regional Secretary, said:

“Everyone should be safe at work.”

“The appalling working practices in the UK garment industry have been an open secret for years. But no serious action has been taken.”

“That’s why we’re pushing for a new partnership model that puts union access at the heart of the garment sector. A new approach where unions, retailers and factory management work together to ensure that legal minimums are being applied across the industry.”

“But we also need a change to the law. The government must use its much-delayed employment bill to make firms liable for abuses in their supply chains.”

“No company should be able to wash its hands of responsibility if their sub-contractors mis-treat staff and deny them their basic rights.”

Editors note

[ii] Boohoo & Covid-19: People behind the profit: boohoo people behind the profit (Labour Behind the Label):

[iii] Leicester lockdown factories 'almost doubled staff' during Covid-19 (BBC):

[iv] Revealed: auditors raised minimum-wage red flags at Boohoo factories (The Guardian)…

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