Female UK garment factory workers at higher risk of dying from Coronavirus

Fashion retailers Leicester

UK garment factory workers have among the highest rate of deaths from COVID-19 among women in the UK, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveals.

The death rate among women working in factories was 33.7 per 100,000 according to the ONS figures, which have been highlighted by campaign group Labour Behind the Label.

Labour Behind the Label points out that sewing machinists as a subgroup had the highest fatality rate among women of any group, at about 65 deaths per 100,000. However with only 14 deaths recorded, between 9 March and 28 December 2020, the ONS said that the small size of the underlying group makes that calculation less reliable. It estimates that the rate may be as low as 35 or as high as 110 per 100,000.

The campaign group said the figures were “a stark reminder of working conditions in Britain’s garment industry” and underscored the need for tougher government regulation to hold retailers responsible for poor conditions in their supply chains.

There were a higher number of deaths among women in retail roles during the period, at 111 in total, however the rate of deaths was lower than sewing machinists at 26.9 deaths per 100,000 given the greater number of women working in these roles.

The deaths by occupation data can be viewed here and the ONS points out the factors relating to deaths are varied and can be a result of exposure to the virus, age and ethnic distribution by occupation.

UK-based garment factories have been under the spotlight during the crisis following reports of a lack of social distancing and hygiene in some locations, particularly in Leicester, over the course of last summer. Labour Behind the Labour was at the forefront of bringing these issues to public attention. Leicester had also been subjected to a targeted lockdown as a result of the spread of the virus among garment workers.

Dominique Muller, policy director at Labour Behind the Label, said: “The failings of the government approach to labour enforcement and health and safety alongside the failure of brands taking responsibility for the workers has led to 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.”

Last July a group of 50 MPs, investors, NGOs and retailers wrote to Home Secretary Priti Patel to call for greater protection for garment workers. The letter, which was co-ordinated by the British Retail Consortium, called for the licensing of garment factories to ensure they are meeting all legal requirements.

Boohoo Group CEO John Lyttle wrote separately to Priti Patel also calling for licensing for factories. The group, which makes around 40% of its clothing in the UK, had been the subject of a media investigation uncovering underpayment and a lack of social distancing at companies that supplied it.

Boohoo has since carried out an independent investigation, appointed retired judge Sir Brian Leveson to oversee its supply chain, and is in the process of building its own factory in the city, in partnership with a third party manufacturer.

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