Andrew Bridgen is Member of Parliament for North West Leicestershire.
With its Mayor, three MPs, Police and Crime Commissioner and 96 per cent representation on the city council all from the same political party, the city is called ‘Red Leicester’ for a reason. However, like a cheese that has been around for too long, something smells very bad about what is going on in this great city, which is Leicestershire’s County Town.
On a superficial basis, things look ok: its football team beat the odds to win the Premier League in 2016, it has a famous if faltering rugby team in the Leicester Tigers and an economy that has performed reasonably well in recent years – in part due to the advent of fast fashion and a resurgence of the garment industry in the city.
Dig a bit deeper, though, and the fundamentals don’t quite look as rosy. Indeed, they look extremely sinister. It has now become increasingly apparent that the growth in this industry is on the back of thousands of exploited workers earning between £3-4 per hour – something I warned was happening in Parliament during Business questions back in January.
While I have highlighted this to the Government for a considerable amount of time, the local lockdown of the city and some surrounding suburbs has created national media interest in it, and questions about the reasons behind the surge in Covid-19 cases. People are asking “why Leicester?”
All the evidence that I have seen points to workers who are effectively modern slaves being put into a position where they have to choose to either work or starve during the lockdown.
The internet retailers (who make up over 90 per cent of the factories) and customers have had a bonanza during the lockdown period, as Government policy has forced non-essential retailers to remain closed. This has effectively removed their traditional “physical competition”, and forced anyone who needed or wanted to buy clothes onto the internet.
It’s also a fact that on poverty wages the housing that these modern slaves could afford would be substandard and very overcrowded. I have been told multiple reports of 15 to 20 people forced to “live” in a traditional terraced house, which is usually deemed suitable accommodation for four people.
Leicester’s captive workforce has had to increase production by 50 per cent throughout the lockdown for their internet retailer masters, work even longer hours than normal (while often showing symptoms of the virus – as they don’t get sick pay), in factories without PPE, ventilation or any measures to reduce transmission, only to return home to chronically overcrowded accommodation. It’s a recipe for the spread of the virus and the tragedy we have seen engulf the city.
Representatives of the city council stubbornly maintain that the two issues which propelled Leicester into the media spotlight, namely the Covid-19 outbreak and the existence of illegal sweatshops, are not linked.
However, as said, I don’t think that their claims survive analysis. The hotspot of the virus outbreak in Leicester is in its North East corner, which is in the parliamentary constituency of Leicester East and all the hundreds of illegally-operating factories are also in this part of the city, the former fiefdom of the “Rt Hon” Keith Vaz.
The more I look at Leicester, the more it appears that although the Labour Party is notionally in charge, they are in fact only presiding over a city where the criminals are ruling the roost through a combination of intimidation and cultural blackmail in the knowledge that the authorities are so scared of the potential accusations of racism, that they dare not challenge the Dickensian conditions and the racketeering that exist in “their part“ of city.
When you hear Labour complain about equality, remember the fact that they appear to be happy to allow sweatshop owners driving around in Lamborghinis to threaten journalists trying to expose slave labour conditions in a city that they politically control.
The Government has to take control of this situation – clear out all that’s rotten in this borough. These appalling conditions are stifling legitimate enterprise in this city with the responsible factory owners and employers tarnished while being unable to compete on a level-playing field against those who operate illegally.
All this together with financial cost of loss of revenue to the Treasury through potential tax and benefit fraud and most importantly, the human cost of a slave workforce unable to live a life worth living.
The modern slaves in Leicester are trapped because most of them cannot speak English, and so are disadvantaged in accessing employment and opportunities outside their own closed community. This has to stop and it’s just a shame that it’s taken a pandemic to get people to sit up and take notice.
Priti Patel has given a personal commitment to stamp out these illegal and inhuman employment practices. I and others will be holding her to this pledge.