UK garment factory workers at higher risk of dying with Covid – study


Sewing machinists and others with jobs in garment factories have among the highest rate of coronavirus deaths among working women in the UK, according to an analysis by the Office for National Statistics.

Twenty-one Covid-19 deaths among women aged between 20 and 64 in the “assemblers and routine operatives” category were registered between 9 March and 28 December 2020, giving the group a death rate of 39 per 100,000 women.

The analysis, published in January and now highlighted by the campaign group Labour Behind the Label (LBL), found that sewing machinists as a subgroup had the highest fatality rate among women of any group, at about 65 deaths per 100,000 – although with 14 deaths recorded, the ONS cautions that the small size of the underlying group makes that calculation less reliable, and the rate may be as low as 35 or as high as 110 per 100,000.

The central estimate for sewing machinists is almost four times the overall rate of deaths among women in the UK, of about 17 per 100,000.

LBL called the figures “a stark reminder of working conditions in Britain’s garment industry” and said they underlined the need for tougher government regulation to hold retailers responsible for poor conditions in their supply chains.

Last summer it was revealed that garment factories in Leicester, many of them supplying the fast fashion brand Boohoo, had stayed open throughout the first lockdown, with staff complaining that they were forced to continue working without adequate safety measures in place.

They described working at close proximity without barriers, a lack of hand sanitiser, and unhygienic toilets. In some cases factories sought to avoid scrutiny by running night shifts with the shutters down.

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One man interviewed by the BBC last summer said his aunt, a factory worker, had died with coronavirus after she had returned to work because she needed the money.

“The garment factories around here are the worst. They put the shutters down and then brought people in round the side. Not all of them, but a lot of them,” he told the broadcaster. “In some of them it’s not possible to socially distance and people do not even wash their hands. The fact my aunt died after going back to work has broken me.”

With many Boohoo suppliers in the city unable to prove they were paying the minimum wage, the company has since promised a major reform programme in its supply chain and is telling its suppliers to stop subcontracting work to smaller factories.

While many factories in Leicester have made changes to their working practices since the first lockdown, sources in the city said some were continuing to force machinists to work in close proximity without adequate safety measures in place.

Dominique Muller, from LBL, said workers were facing “a perfect storm of exploitative and dangerous working conditions. Brands, unions and government agencies must now work together to create a binding set of obligations to protect those most vulnerable.”

Lee Barron, the Midlands regional secretary for the TUC, said the risks highlighted by the data were evidence that the law should be changed. He said: “The government must use its much-delayed employment bill to make firms liable for abuses in their supply chains.”

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