Coronavirus: 'Big problem' at Leicester factories, say workers

By David Pittam
BBC News

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image captionLeicester was put on a local lockdown after Matt Hancock said it accounted for 10% of all positive Covid-19 cases in the country

Textile factories in Leicester have come under the spotlight after the government said it was "concerned" about working conditions in the city.

Some employees told the BBC they worked throughout lockdown for less than minimum wage in conditions where it was "impossible" to stay safe, saying they felt they had no other choice.

Leicester has been placed under local lockdown, but authorities do not believe the city's relatively high number of coronavirus cases can be blamed on a single cause, and said the majority of the area's 1,500 factories have taken precautions.

But Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday he was "very worried about the employment practices in some factories" and Public Health England (PHE) said the combination of living and working conditions in the east of the city will have likely contributed to the high numbers there.

On Tuesday, Mr Hancock told the Commons the seven-day infection rate had dropped from 135 to 117 cases per 100,000 people a week after the government imposed a local lockdown.

image captionThe North Evington area of Leicester, where many live in terraced housing like this, was the worst affected ward in the city

'Big problem with factories'

One man, who has worked in textile factories throughout the pandemic, said he sometimes sat about 80cm from colleagues who did not wear gloves or masks, and up to 40 people could touch a single garment as it went round.

The 36-year-old said: "There is a big problem, a very big problem, with the factories. I worked all through the last quarantine. I felt bad, it was a lockdown and everyone should stay at home.

"I carried on working because I have three children, a wife and parents to support back in Afghanistan.

"My rent is £830 a month and I was getting £409 universal credit from the government. I didn't care about myself but I cared about my family. I put my life at risk to support them. If someone offers you a way out you go because behind you the room is on fire."

He said working practices have been a problem since he arrived in the UK in 2009 and he "blamed the government", saying it was aware before coronavirus but had not acted.

image captionMr Hancock described the decision to impose the country's first local lockdown on Leicester as "difficult but vital"

Mr Hancock said the data on infections is "moving in the right direction", but people in Leicester should carry on following the guidance.

He stressed the measures would not be relaxed until 18 July at the earliest.

Shadow health secretary and Leicester South MP Jonathan Ashworth asked what the government's exit strategy was for the city and affected suburbs.

The Labour MP cited the German protocol where local lockdowns are lifted at 50 cases per 100,000, but Mr Hancock would not commit to a specific number.

The latest data from NHS Digital also shows a drop in the seven-day infection numbers in the city, with 106.4 new cases per 100,000 in the week up to 4 July, compared to 159.1 in the seven days to 25 June.

Another worker - who did not want to be named - is awaiting a decision on his immigration status and gets "£35 a week to live off" from the government but is not allowed to work while he waits.

As an "experienced" worker, he said he can earn about £6 an hour in the factories, an income he said he relies on.

"If the government made sure everyone got enough money to survive during the pandemic, no-one would come into the factories," he said.

"But I was worried about food, about living. I think my story is very typical."

image captionPublic Health England said the high level of cases in the east of the city is due to a range of factors - but not because residents are ignoring rules more than elsewhere

Another man, who also wished to remain anonymous, said his aunt, a factory worker, died from coronavirus three days ago. She had avoided work there for almost two months but had returned to earn some money and contracted the disease within five days.

He said: "The garment factories around here are the worst. They put the shutters down and then brought people in round the side. Not all of them, but a lot of them.

"In some of them it's not possible to socially distance and people do not even wash their hands. The fact my aunt died after going back to work has broken me."

Rashmikant Joshi, Labour councillor for Leicester's North Evington ward, said he was confident the majority of factories are following rules, but he had heard many reports of places where they are not.

He said part of the problem is workers are reluctant to name those responsible, which means "fighting a war with one hand tied behind your back".

But he understood why workers do not want to speak out, adding people need "to work to make ends meet during difficult times".

He said: "We support the workers if they are being exploited in this manner. That should not be happening at all."

image captionHome Secretary Priti Patel has said the government will not tolerate the "truly appalling" conditions reported inside factories

Leicester City Council said on Monday it had been told by PHE there was "no evidence to suggest the rise in coronavirus cases in the city is linked to the textile industry".

On Friday, Ben Anderson from the authority told the BBC the rise in cases could not be put down to a single source and was spreading in the community.

But he said the cases in Leicester affected working age people more than in the rest of the country.

He added: "[What stands out] in the area is predominantly the ways people are employed [and] the higher density of multi-occupancy housing.

"In terms of working conditions, in some of the factories and lower paid work it is very hard to socially isolate."

A number of organisations are now investigating working conditions, including the National Crime Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority.

A HSE spokeswoman said on Friday it had inspected 10 sites. She said one business was issued an improvement notice and officers will "take enforcement action where necessary".

She said the organisation has not yet forced any businesses to close.

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