The appalling state of working conditions in the Leicester garment industry has been known for at least a decade. Channel 4’s Dispatches broadcast an investigation in 2010 that revealed all the trademarks of endemic exploitation: pay at half the minimum wage; dangerous and unsanitary conditions; harassment and abuse. In 2015, the Ethical Trading Initiative commissioned research that found significant under or non-payment of wages; excessive working hours; a captive, vulnerable and exploited workforce; absence of contracts; egregious health and safety violations.
Within days of Covid-19 taking hold in the US and Europe, demand for fast fashion crashed. The production line was frozen. There were products in the design stage, fabric on order, fabric waiting to be cut, already cut, sewn, finished, ready for shipping, en route to stores, sitting in warehouses waiting for distribution, hanging in shops waiting to be bought. On any given day, these goods have a total value of billions of pounds. The question, when the crisis hit, was what to do with all the orders: some in progress, some finished and ready for shipping, some already shipped and awaiting sale.