Online fast fashion retailer Boohoo has spoken out to defend itself against a report that suggests it played a key role in keeping open factories in Leicester during the Covid-19 lockdown. The city is now under renewed lockdown following a spike in infection and death rates. Announcing the lockdown, health secretary Matt Hancock said "targeted action" at factories, workplaces and schools over the past 10 days had not worked, and that stronger measures were therefore needed.
Labour Behind the Label says in its Boohoo & Covid-19 report, that, “emerging evidence indicates that conditions in Leicester’s factories primarily producing for Boohoo, are putting workers at risk of Covid-19 infections and fatalities”.
The report says that low pay, of as little as £3 an hour, has been reported in Leicester factories many times over the years but that new evidence suggests some of the 1,000 factories and workshops thought to be operating in Leicester remained open throughout the lockdown, driven primarily by strong levels of orders from Boohoo.
Some, it says, remained at 100% capacity. It adds: “We have also heard of workers – positive for Covid-19 – being required to work throughout their sickness in order to fulfil orders.” It suggests that Boohoo Group generally accounts for around 75% of the goods made in Leicester, and that between 60% and 70% of the goods it makes come from the city’s factories and workshops. It adds: “Factories producing for Boohoo prefer not to supply other brands as the burdens of auditing and compliance are too strict.”
Boohoo has traded strongly during the lockdown, reporting sales of £367.8m for the three months to May 31, 45% up on the same time last year. It has raised funding for a war chest to finance purchases of other brands during the "numerous opportunities" it expected to see, and went on to buy the Oasis and Warehouse brands out of administration.
Boohooo has published a lengthy rebuttal of the Labour Behind The Label report, which it says is inaccurate. It said: “The boohoo group categorically does not tolerate any incidence of non-compliance especially in relation to the treatment of workers within our supply chain and we have terminated relationships with suppliers where evidence of non-compliance with our strict code of conduct is found. It may surprise people to know that we applaud any examination of practices in supply chains, because we share similar aims: that everyone employed is fairly treated and properly remunerated for the work that they do. However, for any work of this nature to have credibility and to be of value it needs to be accurate and factually correct, which the Labour Behind the Label report unfortunately, is not.”
Boohoo says specifically that since government guidance has never required online businesses or factories or businesses to close, it was operating within the guidance by continuing to trade and order goods. It says that when it was unable to complete on-site compliance visits in the first few weeks of lockdown, its buyers, compliance team and leadership team were in “constant contact” with suppliers though video and audio calls, with “constant reiteration” of expectations on social distancing and hygiene. “Additionally we made available sufficient amounts of PPE and hygiene products free of charge to any supplier that needed them to ensure that these were available for their teams, so there is no reason that these would not be available,” it said. “As soon as lockdown restrictions were eased, our compliance team and third party compliance specialists immediately resumed on-site auditing.”
It also says that it sources about 40% of its products from the UK - rather than the higher levels suggested in the report – and that it is committed to supporting UK manufacturing for its economic and environmental reasons, but that it does not do so at the expense of standards. It says it is able to sell at low prices because it does not have shops and it does not use TV advertising, but instead speaks to shoppers via social media. A test and reorder strategy enables it to keep stock levels – and the costs of that stock – lower. It concluded: “All of this means that we are able to invest in areas that really matter: our people, our designs, our customer service and our suppliers and that is why we are able to offer products at competitive prices.”
Boohoo is a Top100 retailer in RXUK Top500 research.