UK Home Secretary Prit Patel has privately voiced alarm that due to a fear of being called racist, police preferred to turn a blind eye to exploitation in Leicester's factories, where cheap clothes for online fashion giant Boohoo are produced, The Sunday Times reports.
The newspaper cited an unnamed source close to the Home Secretary as saying that Patel is considering introducing new laws on modern slavery because of fears that the country's current legislation is "not fit for purpose".
"This scandal has been hiding in plain sight and there are concerns cultural sensitivities could be in part to blame for why these appalling working practices haven't been investigated", the source pointed out.
This comes after The Sunday Times earlier reported that workers at a factory in Leicester were earning as little as £3.50 ($4.42) an hour, even though the minimum wage in the UK for employees over 25 is £8.72 ($11). Leicester is currently under local lockdown after a recent spike in coronavirus cases.
The newspaper's undercover report also revealed that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, there was little evidence of additional hygiene or social distancing measures put in place at the Leicester workshops.
Boohoo, in turn, said that it had found "some inaccuracies" with The Sunday Times report, adding that its "investigation to date has not found evidence of suppliers paying workers £3.50 per hour". According to the company, the clothes were manufactured in Morocco and were then repackaged in Leicester at a premises formerly operated by Jaswal Fashions.
The company earlier stressed that the alleged conditions for workers at the Leicester factory are "totally unacceptable and fall woefully short of any standards acceptable in any workplace".
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, for his part, told Sky News that "very significant fines" could be distributed if the newspaper's report is confirmed, in addition to potentially closing down businesses.
This came as Tory MP Andrew Bridgen said in an interview with The Sun he believes that about 10,000 "slaves" are working at Leicester workshops.
"It's crazy what is happening in these factories. These men and women are decent, hard-working people but they are risking their lives to produce clothes for big fashion brands right here in the UK", he emphasised.
Bridgen lamented the fact that "no one is doing anything to put a stop to it", adding, "the police should go into the factories and close them down; what they [workers] are doing is slave labour, there is no other word for it".
Before The Sunday Times reports, Channel 4, the Financial Times, the BBC, and The Guardian highlighted issues pertaining to poor conditions at the Leicester factories in reports dating back to 2017 and 2018.
‘Not a Matter of Reluctance Due to Racial Diversity’
Peter Williams, policing and terrorism expert at Liverpool John Moores University and a former police officer, has meanwhile said that police “would see the enforcement of illegal labour and breaches of employment regulations as a matter for the Health and Safety Executive”.
He suggested that many of workers at the Leicester factories are illegal immigrants, adding,”there is no doubt that they are being exploited as cheap labour and live in extremely poor conditions”.
According to Williams, “this does not help Leicester's battle against” the COVID-19 pandemic.
In reference to police’s “cultural sensitivities”-related concerns over Leicester workers, he argued that “the police see their role in the area of trafficking, not the enforcement of employment laws and I do not think it is a matter of reluctance due to racial diversity”.