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Boohoo accused of fuelling virus spread in Leicester production push

Boohoo.Com PLC

Boohoo accused of fuelling virus spread in Leicester production push

Suppliers were pressured to continue operating during lockdown, rights group says

Boohoo’s sales have boomed as pandemic store closures have pushed more consumers online

Boohoo has come under fire for allegedly risking the spread of coronavirus after claims that factories in Leicester supplying the online retailer told staff to come into work during lockdown despite being sick.

Labour Behind the Label, a garment workers’ rights group, on Wednesday said “business as normal” in Leicester’s notorious garment factories was likely to be linked to a rise in virus cases in the city, which is set to go into stricter lockdown as the rest of the UK starts to open up.

“From what we uncovered in our investigation, people have been told to carry on working despite testing positively for Covid,” said Meg Lewis, campaigns manager at LBL, adding that many Leicester factories had faced pressure to continue operating during lockdown.

The group said it had found evidence of Boohoo suppliers operating without social-distancing measures inside factories, as well as instances of furloughed workers being told they would not receive government support unless they showed up to work. Companies asking employees to work while on furlough would be in breach of government rules.

“This is not about a few unscrupulous suppliers, it is Boohoo in particular who’s driving production during the lockdown,” Ms Lewis said.

Leicester, the UK’s largest clothing manufacturing hub, has attracted the attention of labour rights groups for years, with workers having been shown to receive as little as £3.50 an hour.

Boohoo, the online fast-fashion group known for its low prices, manufactures about 40 per cent of its clothes in the UK. The group is behind roughly three-quarters of clothes produced in Leicester, according to LBL estimates, and has during lockdown placed orders for up to 400,000 pieces of clothing a week it said.

It has thrived during the pandemic and, while high-street chains have seen sales plummet during lockdown, the online retailer said last month it expects revenues to rise at least 25 per cent this year from £1.2bn in 2019.

The company would not comment on virus cases among garment workers or claims that it had ramped up production during lockdown. It did, however, say it had “closely followed and adhered to all aspects of the guidance provided by government”.

Boohoo added that its chief executive John Lyttle and senior managers had been “in constant contact with our suppliers [including] video inspections and constant reiteration of our expectations on social-distancing and hygiene measures”. It added that it would “immediately look into the claims made in this report”.

Kate Hills, founder of trade show and garment industry group Make it British, said she had “heard whispers” of manufacturers in Leicester flouting lockdown rules to keep up with heavy demand from flourishing online retailers such as Boohoo.

“It is all derived by the way Boohoo gets factories to compete against each other,” she said. “[It] knowingly can’t make anything that cheap.” Ms Hills said fast-fashion retailers such as Boohoo were pushing down prices and standards among UK producers.

Boohoo said it was able to keep its prices low as it did not have any bricks-and-mortar stores and used social media rather than “costly TV advertising” to reach customers.

Last week, the group announced plans to pay bonuses of up to £150m to its two co-founders and other executives, based only on its share price performance, with no shareholder vote.

Boohoo’s share price, which slid by 2 per cent on Wednesday, has more than doubled since March, when the pandemic forced most of its competitors to shut its stores.

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