“Why did you come here?” the factory manager demands from behind a cameraphone. “You have no appointment, this time of the fucking night! Just leave! Just get out of here! I’ve got nothing to do with Boohoo, OK? I’m going to report you for harassment, do you understand?”
He marches two bemused auditors, who are in Leicester on Boohoo’s behalf as the company reels from this summer’s allegations of its suppliers’ disregard for lockdown rules, out of his factory and into the evening light.
Seven more representatives of Boohoo and its audit firm are waiting outside. They stand with arms crossed and face masks on as he threatens to call the police.
“We’ll chase you, we’ll come to you now,” the manager tells them as they finally depart. “Stop bullying us. You’re criminal, you are. You’re destroying people’s lives.”
The video, one of several shared with the Guardian of tense confrontations between the audit firm Verisio and the city’s factory owners, suggests just how much has changed in a relationship which has, for years, been fruitful for Boohoo and local manufacturers alike.
For years, Boohoo’s critics say, auditors have found what looks like evidence of widespread minimum-wage violations in Leicester, notorious for a textiles industry where margins are so tight that some can see no way to make a profit except by cutting corners.
But even as others uncovered what they regarded as evidence of endemic problems, and whistleblowers came forward, Boohoo’s in-house teams – sometimes, it is said, arriving for “unannounced” audits in tangerine and turquoise branded cars with personalised number plates – were accused of looking the other way.
Campaigners and rivals felt as if Boohoo and the factories had struck a bargain that benefited both – and left some workers seemingly getting by on as little as £3-£4 an hour.
In recent weeks, Verisio has visited as many as 15-20 factories a day. It sees itself as an objective observer willing to tell Boohoo the truth – however uncomfortable that may be. Boohoo says it “initiated a new programme of oversight across our Leicester supply chain to provide us with further insight into the practices of manufacturing in the area” at the start of 2020.
But not everyone is convinced that the stepped-up programme – or the independent review led by QC Alison Levitt, which Boohoo has commissioned and which will report back in September – will bring about change.
Whereas the Fast Forward standard used elsewhere sets out specific, universal standards, Verisio describes what it finds and leaves an adjudication on appropriate standards to the brand.
“They can only be as good as what they’re asked to look for,” suggests Dominique Muller, of the campaign group Labour Behind the Label.
Meanwhile, Boohoo has never shared its internal standards before, or a list of suppliers. And sceptics of the Levitt review suggest that while its terms of reference consider allegations about suppliers and whether Boohoo knew about them, they do not call for an assessment of whether the company turned a blind eye to issues that it had a responsibility to root out.
Whether the review’s findings are published will ultimately be a matter for Boohoo, not the author.
Labour Behind the Label has participated, setting out sharp criticisms of Boohoo. However, it noted its deep reservations about the process, which it said it feared was “unlikely to provide effective, positive and accountable changes for Leicester workers”. The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), an umbrella group that promotes workers’ rights and counts other fashion brands such as Asos, M&S and Next as members, declined to give evidence, saying that the review’s focus was too narrow and that it could not be “fully independent”.
“You have to look at the whole supply chain, top to bottom,” said the ETI’s Nigel Venes. “You can’t just focus on the manufacturers. The questions are: who commissioned the order? What are the factors driving the business practices? Are they playing suppliers off against each other? Until they look at that I will struggle to believe they’re sincere in addressing the problem, and nobody on our side is going to take a step towards them.”
Boohoo says it is committed to “delivering the highest standards of ethics, compliance and transparency” and to investing “heavily in significant extra compliance and auditing resource to forensically investigate the allegations that had been made about mistreatment of people employed by garment manufacturers in the area”.
Factory bosses, meanwhile, plainly feel under siege – and they are angry about it. One, who declined to give his name, approached the Guardian on the street in the heart of Leicester’s garment district and demanded to know why factories were now coming under scrutiny. “Everybody knows the media and Boohoo have an agenda against Leicester,” he said. “You are all liars.”
Workers, however, say clearly that while some factories in Leicester do things by the book, the feeling is that they are in the minority.
One employee at Smart Garments, a Boohoo supplier recently issued with an improvement notice by the Health and Safety Executive – which it complied with – over its failure to put adequate Covid-19 measures in place, claimed the factory “never stopped” during lockdown, and that he felt he and his colleagues had been put “in serious danger” of contracting the virus.
He felt in an impossible position, he said. “I work for my family but I put my family in danger at the same time.”
A worker at a factory not mentioned in the audits, Pro Fashion Limited, provided a rare sight of documents that suggested the minimum wage was not always paid.
At an overcrowded house where the living room was being used as a bedroom to accommodate more people and the only communal furniture was a plastic garden table and chair set, they emptied a folder of documents and spread them out.
One printed document purported to show an “official” wage calculated on the basis of an £8.72 minimum wage payment, and a smaller number of hours. Next to it was what the worker described as a handwritten “shadow” payslip, which they said showed the real number of hours worked – and calculated pay at a rate of £6 an hour. “I work all the time,” the worker said. “I can’t get another job. I can’t go home. This is the only work I can do.”
Pro Fashion denied the claims, saying it paid minimum wage and “does not issue any other payslip as you mention”.
Meanwhile, there are reports that some factory bosses are finding creative ways to cover themselves. In one case, a worker said, a record book tracking real working hours that was normally left on site was being taken home by a supervisor every night.
In another, factory bosses are alleged to be paying minimum wage for the real hours in cash – and then taking a cash rebate from their staff the next day.
And in a third, it is claimed that workers are made to work overnight to avoid the attention of auditors and regulators.
Will the new allegations cause Boohoo to consider taking a different approach? The government seems sceptical.
At the weekend, the home secretary, Priti Patel wrote to the company criticising its response to the allegations and saying that she was concerned that it “appears to be focused on terminating contracts with suppliers found to have breached your code of conduct, rather than on protecting vulnerable workers”.
The company is reported to be seeking new suppliers in Turkey and Morocco. Factory workers told the Guardian they thought Boohoo was considering moving its business offshore. And local sources said orders were already said to be drying up.
Boohoo said that it had no choice but to terminate trading relationships “if we are left in any doubt about an owner’s true commitment to drive change in the timeframe that we have set out”. But it also noted that “walking away from every factory where an issue is found would have a catastrophic impact on the livelihoods of those employed in the sector”.
Muller agreed, arguing that the worst possible outcome would be for Boohoo to simply abandon the city and move its production overseas. “Leicester is not unsalvageable,” she said. If Boohoo did get out of the city, that could only indicate one thing, she claimed. “There should be a lot of benefits to sourcing in the UK for them,” she said. “If they leave, it will simply make people ask whether their profits have been based on illegally low pay all along.”