Why don't we have the powers to fully tackle exploitation?

By Cllr Adam Clarke | 24 July 2020

Stating the obvious, councils are working differently at the moment.

There is no doubt that councils are also working even harder. No more so than here in Leicester, the first and possibly the last city to suffer from the imposition of a COVID-19 ‘local lockdown’, and one where despite having no powers to prevent exploitation in garment factories, we have received the finger of blame for this. Without any epidemiological evidence and with questionable motive, endemic issues have come to the fore in places where they should have always been a high priority.

These issues have been a high priority at Leicester City Council for some time.

Whilst we don’t have any authority or powers to inspect factories for potential labour market exploitation - these responsibilities rest with a complex web of government agencies - we do have responsibility to drive bad jobs out of the city and to welcome good jobs (of which there are already very many in textiles and beyond). We do this for the wellbeing of our residents and for the wellbeing of the local the economy.

Why don’t we have the powers? It’s a question we have asked.

In 2017, the Human Rights Select Committee, chaired by Harriet Harman MP, visited Leicester, where a session of the committee was also held. The final report included a recommendation to 'bring forward legislative proposals to grant powers to local authorities to close down premises which are found to exploit workers…'. This was a recommendation we encouraged and supported yet was rejected by government.

A short time later, Leicester's city mayor Sir Peter Soulsby convened a Textiles Coalition Event, which led to the National Labour Market Enforcement Strategy being published and, with the encouragement of Sir David Metcalf of Labour Market Enforcement (LME), the setting up of a pilot task force to test how multi-agency working could take place between enforcement bodies and others including GLAA, HMRC HSE, the council, industry bodies, suppliers, retailers and consumers.

Leicester City Council got behind this fully, without any new resources being offered to us.

Operational activity at multiple premises took place, resulting in a small number of modern day slavery investigations. A review of the initial pilot by LME concluded that whilst data sharing had improved, lack of ongoing intelligence leads hampered progress. It was generally agreed that better communication was needed so Leicester’s mayor Sir Peter Soulsby and Sir David Metcalf came up with the idea for a unique post, funded by the council. This post is now filled and actively supporting better data sharing: but the problems of reporting and resources remain.

Away from this enforcement work, the mayor has pushed forward a range of activity to promote and create good jobs and to drive out bad jobs. In addition to promoting the Living Wage Foundation campaign across  the city, by May 2019 we had provided business support and run ethical compliance workshops and other events for 150 businesses and we have given over £400k of grants to textiles businesses as part of a wider £1.2m grant pot from the European Union.

Our work with textiles businesses across the city has not abated. We jointly commissioned a feasibility study for a textiles hub with the LLEP (our local enterprise partnership), and have identified a site, as well as funding to subsidise for building works and a lease. This work has had to be paused due to COVID-19 but we are now discussing next steps with partners.

We’ve yet to be offered financial support from industry or government to support this work.

Coming right up to date, in mid-July we co-convened a webinar to help fashion and textiles businesses learn more about making their workplaces COVID-19 secure. We delivered the webinar alongside the Business Gateway Growth Hub, which is an initiative of the LLEP.

Over twenty-five businesses signed up to the event, on 14th July which looked specifically at managing COVID-19 related risks and implementing measures to remain compliant with legal requirements. Advice was tailored to the fashion and textiles industry with a step-by-step guide outlined to make factories COVID-19 secure.

It’s now over a year since Beis announced the government’s intent to establish a single enforcement body and the consultation ended last October. The government website states that consultation responses are still being analysed.

We haven’t seen any progress.

Labour market exploitation around the country, in many sectors, has of course taken place in that time.

We’re calling on Government to immediately publish their plans for this single enforcement body so we can remove the over-bearing barrier of too many stretched organisations trying to navigate a system that’s too easily exploited resulting in people being exploited.

Councils must to be given the adequate powers and resources to work closely with the single enforcement body to help prevent exploitation of workers, to drive out bad jobs and ensure they are replaced by good jobs. By establishing this body in the centre of England, in Leicester, we will also be able to replace some of the jobs lost as a result of HMRC contracting over the last few years ahead of moving out of the city completely by 2022.

Bringing people out of exploitation is everyone’s business. In Leicester we are proactively trying to address the problem head on, on all fronts. 

So, what are you doing? 

Cllr Adam Clarke is deputy city mayor at Leicester City Council

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