BFAWU calls for tougher legislation to protect workers in Leicester ‘sweatshops’

The BFAWU has called for tougher legislation – not more guidelines – to stop bosses putting workers at risk during the coronavirus crisis.

Speaking after garment factories in Leicester were revealed to have been operating without social distancing, hand sanitiser and PPE, BFAWU regional organiser George Atwall said: “Since the pandemic began, what we have noticed in the Bakers’ Union is that many workplaces in the knitwear and garment industry in Leicester have been abusing their positions as employers by refusing to follow covid risk assessments or social distancing guidelines.

“The same is also true with bosses not providing adequate PPE to their staff. To address this problem the Bakers’ Union calls for the government to bring in tougher legislation not just government guidelines which too many companies seem happy to ignore.

“This problem is common. For example, throughout the pandemic our union has also been fighting to ensure that key workers in our region’s food factories are kept safe. Many of our members working as key workers at factories, like those run by Samworth Brothers here in Leicester, or by Greencore in Northampton, have failed to take the health and safety of their workers seriously. Our union has been able to help address these problems.

“Some people in the textile industry keep saying that everything is OK, but we don’t think this is the case. We know what our members are telling us, and the working conditions remain unacceptable in too many factories. That is why we believe that bosses in the garment industry who say they are committed to eradicating Leicester’s sweatshops should lead by example and establish formal trade union recognition agreements with trade unions. This includes the major brands who make huge profits from Leicester’s poor working conditions like Boohoo.

“We are also looking at getting more people involved in our trade union where we will always support our members wherever they work. Workers are often scared to speak out about their exploitative employers who regularly fiddle the books to make it look like they are paying their staff the minimum wage.

“What our union knows from representing our members in Leicester is that the dangerous working conditions within some garment factories have definitely contributed to the spread of the coronavirus in our communities. The local council may say that Public Health England ‘has found no evidence to suggest the rise in [covid] cases is linked to the textile industry’, but this isn’t the full story.

“Our members say this is not the case. The council knows there is a serious problem with vulnerable workers sweating away under bullying bosses and by making public statements that suggest there is no connection between the pandemic and poor working conditions they only let exploitative bosses off the hook. To be clear what is happening in Leicester represents a very serious abuse of workers’ rights during a deadly pandemic.

“We believe there is a lot of work to be done to bring an end to all sweatshops. But this is not a problem that is isolated to Leicester, it is a global problem. As we continue to point out, the Bakers’ Union believes that the government has for some time been moving in the wrong direction when it comes to strengthening workers’ rights.

“A recent report published by the Resolution Foundation demonstrated how government actions really do nothing to stop abuse of workers, noting that companies found to have been paying their staff less than the national minimum wage “rarely suffer significant financial loss” in the rare instances when the government finds out. Over the last decade the government has also slashed £100 million from the funding they provide for the Health & Safety Executive and have ordered their inspectors to carry out less workplace inspections. These actions need to be immediately addressed.

“The Bakers’ Union has no faith in the government to willingly take any serious actions to stop the existence of abusive labour practices in Leicester or anywhere else. The government only ever help workers when they come under pressure from trade unions and their members.  That is why our union will continue campaigning alongside members of the Leicester and Districts Trades Union Council to launch a broader campaign to support workers in the knitwear and garment industries. We would also encourage all workers to join a union as soon as possible so we can fight together to improve everyone’s working conditions.”

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