Exploited workers in textile factories in Leicester have been denied over £27m in lost earnings in the last three months, according to the British Retail Consortium.
It wrote to the home secretary in July to urge the government to implement a licensing scheme to tackle illegally low paid and unsafe conditions in some garment factories.
It received no response and has written again, telling the Home Office: “The BRC calculates that exploited workers in garment factories in Leicester alone are collectively being denied £2.1m a week in unpaid wages.
“This equates to over £27m since we raised this issue with you in July. This is entirely unacceptable.”
Ritu, who asked us to change her name to protect her identity because she’s afraid of the consequences of speaking out, has worked in textile factories in Leicester for the last six years.
Her payslip states she’s paid the national minimum wage, £8.72 per hour, for 42 hours of work each week.
But she says that doesn’t tell the true story, as she’s forced to work seven days a week for many more hours than she’s paid for.
“It’s 65 hours, 75 hours a week,” she says.
“No sick pay, no benefits, only work. I’m working for £5 an hour.”
She says it’s not worth trying to find a job in another factory because “every factory, £5, £5”.
Asked if she’s scared of the factory bosses, she replies “yes, of course”.
She doesn’t believe her English is good enough to find other work so feels unable to leave.
There are as many as 10,000 people working in hundreds of garment factories and workshops in Leicester.
The head of sustainability at the BRC, Peter Andrews, says there must be greater regulation of the industry.
“We’re asking the home secretary to implement a tried and tested licensing system,” he tells Sky News.
“So that no business will be able to operate without having first had a check by the authorities that it is ensuring that the minimum wages are being paid, that their health and safety practices are up to scratch and that workers are treated fairly.”
The number of calls to the national Modern Slavery Helpline have increased – from workers in Leicester and beyond.
Justine Corrall, executive director of the charity Unseen UK, says there is a systemic problem, with some workers earning as little as £3.50 an hour.
“It’s not just in one factory or one location, it’s right across the piece,” she says.
“So if workers raise the alarm, say there is an issue, then unfortunately the chances are that they won’t get a job in one of the other factories.
“Also there are threats of violence – of actual physical violence as well, not only to them but also to their families.
“And some may not have regularised status in the UK, which means that they’re unlikely to speak out because it might jeopardise their situation further.”
A Home Office spokesperson told Sky News they had received the letter from the BRC and would respond in due course.
They added: “Exploiting vulnerable workers for commercial gain is despicable and we expect businesses to do all they can to tackle abuse and exploitation in their supply chains.
“We are deeply concerned by the appalling reports of illegal and unsafe working conditions for garment workers in Leicester, and will ensure perpetrators face the full force of the law if evidence comes to light through the work of our new specialist Taskforce, led by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority.”