As a radically de-privileged city, it is unsurprising that Leicester was the first to experience a localised lockdown. COVID-19 is well-known to thrive in the conditions of poverty and inequality that are rife in many parts of the city. The outbreak has also brought the city’s garment economy to national attention, as one possible source of infection. For decades, the labour rights of thousands of workers in and around Leicester, many from Asian backgrounds, have been systematically violated. Neither sweatshop employers, nor the well-known predatory retailers they service, have shown the slightest interest in protecting workers and their families from infection.
Leicester’s renewed lockdown has also shone a disturbing light on central-local relations. The government has repeatedly marginalised Leicester City Council and Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby, withholding vital information and denying the city parity in decision-making. In the most flagrant instance of bad faith, Home Secretary Priti Patel declared that the council had failed to take enforcement action against the sweatshops because it feared being branded racist.
Patel’s claim is expedient, inflammatory and false. The UK government has long known about the sweatshops and done nothing. Only recently, it dismissed recommendations from the 2019 Commons Environmental Audit Committee report Fixing Fashion. Patel’s comments deflect attention from the truth: sweatshops flourish because for decades, government has pursued labour market de-regulation. The Leicester area may have the greatest concentrations, but it is not the only place and apparel is not the only industry breeding barbaric labour practices in Britain. They are rife in the hospitality industries and in thousands of unregulated carwashes across the UK. Content to sit back and let market forces rip through the dark recesses of the supply chain, government ministers are directly responsible.
Leicester City Council does bear some responsibility, but not in the manner insinuated by Patel. Our research on austerity governance shows that it has gone out of its way to avoid confrontation with central government over the past decade of draconian cuts and fiscal restructuring. As one respondent commented in an interview, ‘drama and conflict aren’t in the best interests of the city’. This ethos is also reflected in the council’s stance towards sweatshops. It has taken low key initiatives but purposely avoided spotlighting the issue. This positioning has nothing to do with race, however, and is far more to do with protecting the city’s brand. As another respondent put it, ‘there are enforcement rules we could potentially use but they’re counter-productive … It’s about education of the sector. But again, you’ve got to be very politically sensitive about that . . . because when you’re looking to pull businesses . . . you’ve got to be careful. You don’t want to put them off coming into the city if you’ve got a negative perception’. This bleak race-to-the-bottom reasoning is the direct consequence of de-regulation, austerity and abolishing fiscal equalisation.
Since its brief revolt against rate capping in the 1980s, Leicester City Council has been a cautious and pragmatic authority. Through the age of austerity, it went with the grain of government policy, mitigating the worst effects when it could, because it thought conflict would be counterproductive. The beatings dealt out to Labour local government in the 1980s dwell in the institutional memory and undoubtedly inform the city’s governing style - what we call ‘austerian realism’. Priti Patel’s smear shows, alas, that keeping your head down is no protection from a hostile government when crisis comes.
In light of the decision last week to devolve certain lockdown powers, Leicester should be a klaxon warning to all local authorities: government will not hesitate to scapegoat municipalities wherever and whenever it suits. Westminster has shown itself incapable of taking responsibility for its actions and decisions. Failure to admit responsibility for the sweatshops, whilst indulging in racialised smears, is a tactic straight from Donald Trump’s ‘populist’ playbook. This at once a malicious attack on Britain’s leading multicultural city and a significant threat to the fight against COVID-19. Without major structural reforms to Britain’s labour market and measures to empower workers, moreover, the tragic likelihood is that once the fuss dies down the sweatshops will carry on much as before.
Professor Jonathan S. Davies is director – De Montfort University Centre for Urban Research on Austerity
This article draws on research undertaken in Leicester, published open access at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07352166.2018.1490152, and https://cura.our.dmu.ac.uk/2017/08/16/dissemination-report-governing-in-and-against-austerity/