Great Britain

Priti Patel criticised over comments on Leicester’s sweatshops

Priti Patel, the home secretary, has come under fire over claims that “cultural sensitivities” prevented a robust response to alleged worker exploitation in Leicester, with critics arguing cuts to regulators, the decision to limit inspections and an absence of unions were the biggest causes.

Ten days after the Guardian reported on fears that conditions in sweatshops were a factor in Leicester’s surge in coronavirus cases and resulting lockdown, reports emerged on Sunday that Patel was considering new laws to curb modern slavery.

Patel had “privately raised concerns” that police and government agencies were turning a blind eye to the problem because they might be labelled racist, the Sunday Times said.

Patel was reported to have compared the issues in Leicester, where south Asian factory owners run an industry that largely relies on immigrant and BAME labour, to the Rotherham grooming scandal.

But critics said her reported views failed to account for the fact that in contrast to the Rotherham scandal, parliamentary reports, regulators and media coverage had raised concerns publicly about Leicester for years.

“It’s outrageous,” said Claudia Webbe, the Labour MP for Leicester East where many of the factories are based, who raised the issue in her maiden speech to the Commons in February. “It’s not about the fear of being labelled racist, it’s not about cultural sensitivity, it’s about the failure of government to protect mainly women from migrant communities who have been seriously exploited by unscrupulous employers.”

“The government has been in power for 10 years,” she added. “It needs to properly fund the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities if it’s serious about making a change.”

Andrew Bridgen, the Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire, who raised the issue in the Commons in January and has said he will provide evidence to the National Crime Agency on Monday, did not reply directly to a question on LBC radio about Patel’s reported views but said: “I told Matt Hancock [the health secretary] and Priti Patel when the figures for Leicester came out, I said you will not sort out the virus flare-up in Leicester until we close these slave sweatshops.”

The HSE, which like many other regulators has faced cuts since the coalition government took charge in 2010, was told to cut proactive workplace inspections by a third in 2011.

A 2018 Financial Times report noted that Chris Grayling had said in 2012, when he was the employment minister: “If we try to legislate out all risk, we will lose jobs to other places.”

While sectors including stoneworking and furniture manufacture are subjected to “targeted proactive intervention” by the HSE, the textiles industry is in category D, the group deemed to be lowest risk, and therefore faces a “principally reactive” approach.

The office of the director of labour market enforcement said in its 2018 strategy that the average employer could expect an inspection by the HMRC’s minimum wage team about once every 500 years.

While bodies including the HSE and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority made a number of visits to factories in Leicester last week, those interventions were made with the consent of business owners, raising concerns that serious offenders will simply refuse the bodies access.

Amid ongoing concerns that whistleblowers in Leicester are afraid to come forward because of the risk of retribution, it is understood that a new strategy from the interim labour market enforcement director, Matthew Taylor, will propose strengthening powers for regulators in circumstances where widespread reports of abuse are not followed by actionable intelligence.

Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said: “The extent of government cuts to enforcement agencies and inspectorates over the years is scandalous.”

She argued that the fact Leicester’s garment factories are largely without union representation was a more significant factor than cultural sensitivity in abuses there. “There is no better way to support workers on a sustainable basis than a union,” she said. “If workers in exploited conditions just had the right to speak to someone, that would be important. Rights aren’t worth the paper they’re written on unless you can enforce them.”

The GMB’s Leicester representative Mark Mizzen said barriers to recruitment were raised by the nature of Leicester’s factories and workshops. “The great fear is that if we’re outside these factories, anybody seen talking to us could be victimised,” he said. “You’re talking about many small units with 20 workers, so it’s much harder to get involved with trying to organise.”

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