09:26, July 14 193 0 theguardian.com

2020-07-14 09:26:04
Priti Patel is wrong, modern slavery in Leicester is built on her government's failures

The Covid-19 pandemic has ensured that the conditions in garment sweatshops in Leicester are no longer an open secret shared by those in the know, but a nationally recognised shame. The government should be seizing this opportunity and taking action to rid these factories and many other workplaces around the country of exploitation.

Instead, the weekend brought us reports of Priti Patel comparing the situation in Leicester to the Rotherham grooming scandal, suggesting that “cultural sensitivities” were the reason why the endemic abuse had not been tackled. This sounds like an attempt to distract us from the policy failures that have led us here, to a country in which more than 10,000 potential victims of modern slavery were identified in 2019, and everyday products have exploitation in their supply chains.

Employers push abusive working conditions on to workers for one very simple reason: to make more money. In this way, it’s an opportunistic act. So, very simply, we need to remove the opportunity. How do we do that? There are three clear ways: properly funded labour inspection, ensuring reporting abuse is safe for migrant workers, and strong unionisation. None of them involve cultural sensitivities, and government has been asked for them repeatedly over the years.

We can’t expect to have decent workplaces without proper enforcement of our labour laws. For too long, labour inspection has been portrayed as busybody interference or “red tape”. This narrative allows government to get away with shameful underfunding of our inspectorates. The stats say it all: the likelihood of a minimum wage inspection by HMRC for an average employer is once every 500 years. The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, our foremost agency tasked with tackling precisely the kinds of conditions reported in Leicester, has just over 100 staff to cover the entire labour market of England and Wales. Labour inspectors weren’t even named as “essential workers” on government lists when the pandemic took hold. They’re treated as the poor relation of policing, and yet without them to hold the line, labour abuses escalate into full-blown modern slavery. For government to point the finger at these frontline services for the situation in Leicester is, at best, ignorance of the facts, and, at worst, offensive to these underfunded agencies.

Funding labour inspectorates properly alone won’t solve problems like those in Leicester. Instead of conjecture, Patel would do better to look at how her own department’s policies are making the situation so much worse. The hostile environment – and specifically, the illegal working offence – makes it impossible for migrant workers with irregular status to feel safe to report abuse. They’re forced to choose between staying in exploitative situations or risking detention and deportation if they report harm. Even being a victim of modern slavery won’t protect them; hundreds of victims have been locked up in immigration jails in the UK on a regular basis. And exploitative bosses know this, directly using migrant workers’ fear to force them to accept abusive conditions. This is so well recognised that the government’s own form for referring victims of modern slavery to support services includes “threat of being handed over to authorities” as an indicator. There’s a very straightforward way to solve this: repeal the illegal working offence and introduce “secure reporting”, which ensures any reports of workplace abuse are kept separate from immigration enforcement.

Finally, the most effective defenders of workplace rights are workers themselves. We’ve become inured to the decline of unions, and yet Covid-19 demonstrates their importance: without them ensuring that health and safety rules – like social distancing and PPE – are observed, this job is left to business. Brands do have the power to ensure unionisation in their supply chains, just like they have the power to impose such low prices for orders that necessitate poverty wages, but they don’t use it. Boohoo was outed during a 2019 parliamentary inquiry for refusing “even the most basic level of engagement” with the union Usdaw, and for being generally hostile to workers organising for their rights. If the government really wants to avoid more lockdowns and more exploitation, it should mandate unionisation in high-risk sectors.

Properly funded labour inspection, ensuring reporting abuse is safe for migrant workers, and strong unionisation are the foundations of a decent and healthy labour market. Without them in place, we’ll continue to have the kind of appalling situation exposed in Leicester. The health of our workplaces and communities requires us not to be distracted by red herring explanations but to keep calling for a post-Covid-19 future that puts these foundations firmly in place at last.

Emily Kenway is senior adviser at Focus on Labour Exploitation and author of The Truth about Modern Slavery, published in January 2021