Campaign group Labour Behind the Label said its report, published after Leicester became the first city in the UK to have a second lockdown imposed on Monday night, revealed “shameful” disregard for worker safety by the factories and the major UK brands operating in the area.
Testimony compiled by the group included allegations that workers were forced to work despite high levels of infection in factories and that “furlough fraud” had been “commonplace”.
One unnamed worker quoted in the report alleged that he had told his employer he was unwell, but was told to come in to work anyway – even after testing positive for coronavirus.
He was told not to inform any other employees about the result, the report said.
In one factory with 80 staff, around 15 had Covid-19 at the same time, another worker alleged.
Workers in several factories meanwhile told the group that there had been no social distancing measures put in place, and that their employers had closed sites for a few days only amid the Covid-19 pandemic, if at all.
The report’s authors said Labour Behind the Label had also received “numerous reports” of “serious furlough fraud”.
In one instance, workers in a particular factor were told by managers in early April to hide their previous month’s payslips so that bosses “could make an inflated claim for furlough money,” the report said.
“Other workers have reported they were made redundant when lockdown was announced and said they were not on ‘the books’ therefore did not qualify for Furlough payments,” it added.
Labour Behind the Label said the majority of the reports it had received were linked to suppliers producing for fashion firm Boohoo, which it claimed accounts for almost 75-80 per cent of production in the city, and sister brands including PrettyLittleThing.
The Guardian meanwhile quoted Boohoo as saying in a statement that it had “fundamentally changed the way that we operate” since coronavirus and that “every decision we have made has had the safety and wellbeing of our people at heart”.
The brand said it was confident that those in its supply chain were operating safely and that it provided free PPE and sanitiser as well as remaining in close contact.
“None of our suppliers have been affected at this time and we are pleased that our in-house compliance team have been able to resume their work,” it added. “Our third-party auditors are also out visiting sites this week.”
The Evening Standard has contacted Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing for comment.
The report came as it emerged that Public Health England had found evidence that young men between 20 and 40 who work in Leicester’s garment factories and food processing plants were major vectors of coronavirus transmission.
The body became so concerned about the surge in cases in the city that they sent a team of officials to the area at the weekend to investigate, the Guardian reported on Wednesday.
Data collected by local health bodies has revealed that many of those infected during Leicester’s recent Covid-19 spike have been men aged 20 to 40, often from an Asian background, many of whom work in the textiles and food industries.
Leicester’s garment factories have been the subject of growing concern for years, with a report last year by the parliamentary environmental audit committee finding that wage exploitation was rife in the city and across the sector more broadly.
MPs behind the report heard it was an “open secret” that many of the 1,000 or so factories and workshops in the area were paying below the minimum wage, with mostly immigrant workers, many of whom have limited English, paid as little as £3 an hour in some cases.