LEICESTER, United Kingdom – England’s top Catholic prelate has welcomed reports of an investigation by the U.S. government into the labor practices at Boohoo, a UK online fashion retailer which sources from factories in Leicester.
Sky News reported U.S. Customs and Border Protection was considering an import ban on the British company’s products over allegations of slave-like conditions at their factories.
“I welcome these important investigations, bringing as they do attention to the extent of forced and exploited labor in parts of the garment-making industry in Leicester,” said Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
Nichols is also President of the Santa Marta Group, an alliance of Catholic Bishops, police and law enforcement agencies, religious communities and international organizations set up to battle human trafficking and other forms of modern slavery.
Leicester has long been a central hub of the garment industry in England, and conditions at the city’s factories were put under a microscope last year during the COVID-19 lockdown. Leicester had the highest rates of COVID-19 transmission in the country, with many pointing to the lack of safety precautions and long working hours at the factories creating ideal conditions for the transmission of the coronavirus.
Boohoo came under fire after reports emerged that its workers were being underpaid and working unpaid overtime. The company denied any wrongdoing.
Sky News said the U.S. investigation came in response to a petition filed by Liberty Shared, an antislavery organization.
“The evidence of Boohoo and forced labor is quite compelling. I think it will be a wake-up call for British institutions about how they’re handling modern slavery enforced labor, particularly in a community like Leicester East,” said Duncan Jepson, the head of Liberty Shared.
“What we’d all like, those of us interested in improving labor conditions, is for Boohoo to really get to grips with governance of their supply chain to ensure there is no wage theft and people have proper contracts,” he told Sky News.
Boohoo issued a statement saying it was “not aware” of any U.S investigation.
“Over the past eight months the group has been working closely with UK enforcement bodies. If the group were to discover any suggestion of modern-day slavery it would immediately disclose this to the relevant authorities,” the company said.
Nichols said investigations such as that by the U.S. customs service “bring pressure on anyone seemingly profiting from exploitation while avoiding all responsibility for it.”
“The need for change is vital and urgent,” the cardinal added.
Kevin Hyland, the Senior Special Advisor to the Santa Marta Group and former UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, said the investigation by the U.S. agency is important.
“If they do identify this in the supply chain in Leicestershire, the potential sanctions to not trade in the US are enormous,” he told Sky News.
“The aim of the petitions is very clear, that companies which think they can benefit from forced labor and the exploitation of others are shown that they cannot and will face a sanction that they can’t trade in the world’s largest economy. But what it will do as well is create a gap for good businesses to come in and pay people properly,” he said.
Sky News says more than 20 percent of Boohoo’s revenues come from the U.S. market.
Nichols said those profits are immoral if they were obtained from slave labor.
“Pope Francis has graphically described profit made from the labor exploitation of any child, woman or man, as ‘blood money’ and the fight against modern slavery requires this kind of international cooperation if it is to register any progress,” the cardinal said.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome