There was also a discussion on this on BBC Radio Scotland this Morning
High price paid for cheap UK clothes
Karen McVeigh in Dhaka
Monday July 16, 2007
Two toddlers sit on a rusting grille platform built on bamboo stilts at the entrance to one of Bangladesh's fastest-growing housing developments.
Three feet below them lies a festering mound of rubbish, into which a gushing waste pipe from a nearby factory discharges. Beyond them are rows and rows of windowless, airless, corrugated iron rooms, stacked on top of each other like chicken coops.
This is Begunbari in Dhaka, the heart of the city's industrial district and home to many of its garment workers, including those who make clothes for some of Britain's best-known high street brands, including Asda, Tesco and Primark.
By day, the rooms are like ovens. At night, the noise from the slum's estimated 50,000 inhabitants, their screaming babies, radios and televisions is deafening. But the rent is cheap, at 900 takas or three pounds a month, which is why they are filled with factory workers, whose monthly earning are, they say, as little as seven pounds, or just two pence an hour.
Over the last 10 years, Bangladesh's clothing industry has boomed, fed by the huge demand for cut-price clothes supplied by supermarkets and discount chains.
An estimated 2.5 million people work in thousands of factories here, but their wages have halved in real terms in recent years, making them one of the cheapest workforces in the world.
When faced with previous allegations that their suppliers are exploiting factory workers, Asda, Tesco and Primark have spoken of their commitment to labour rights. All three have signed up to a code of conduct which sets out basic rights for employees, including that they shall not regularly work more than 48 hours a week, that overtime shall be voluntary and not exceed 12 hours a week, and that a "living wage" should be paid. But last month, employees of factories supplying clothes to all three retailers told the Guardian that their wages were so low that, despite working up to 84-hour weeks, they struggled to provide for their families. Many claimed they were regularly forced to work 12-hour days, and that working through the night to finish an order was not uncommon. Workers from factories supplying all three companies also said they were refused access to trade unions and claimed that, in the last month, four colleagues had been dismissed for attempting to organise a union.
All of the eight workers interviewed by the Guardian said they were paid well below the £22 a month considered by experts to be the minimum living wage.
One worker claimed she had witnessed the physical and verbal abuse of a colleague and said she felt "threatened and frightened" at work, while another said he had been sacked and had his wages withheld for taking two days off to take his baby daughter to hospital. A third, who folds clothes for all three companies, claimed two colleagues lost their jobs last month for taking three consecutive sick days off. He said he was forced to stand nine hours a day, with only one, hour-long break for lunch.
Parvin, 25, a sewing machine operator who makes jeans and trousers for Primark, told the Guardian that she had seen a supervisor physically attack a colleague for not meeting her target of making 100 pieces an hour.
"I do things very quickly," said Parvin, from Begunbari. "A sewing machine operator hadn't met her target of finishing 100 pieces. It was maybe 80 or 90. The supervisor came over and snatched up the clothes and slapped her and shouted at her. What can she say? If she protested, she would be sacked."
She earns £18 a month for working from 8am to 8.30pm, a 75-hour week. At least three times a month, she is forced to work through the night, until 4am, and often until 10 or 11pm, she said.
The long hours leave her "very tired and sometimes exhausted" but she fears she might lose her job if she did not work overtime. Besides, her basic wage is not enough to live on, let alone send money home to her three children in her village, so she needs the money.
Mahbubur, 20, a machine operator, who provides clothes for Tesco and Primark, earns £16 a month, but he said apprentices or helpers in his factory earn only £9. His basic hours are 8am to 8pm, six days a week, but overtime, sometimes through the night, is compulsory, as is a meticulous attendance record. "If someone refuses, they can lose their job," he said. "This month, two of my colleagues lost their jobs. One, his father was sick and he had to go to the country to take care of him. The other had a fever." There is a nurse but no doctor in his factory. If someone is sick, they will often have to work until 5pm before they are allowed to go home, he said. Azizul, 28, a sewing machine operator who makes clothes for Primark, said he was sacked on June 20 and had his month's wages withheld, after he took two days off work to take his baby daughter to hospital.
He said: "I feel sorrow and sadness, not anger. There is nothing I can do."
Nazma Akter, president of the United Garment Workers Federation and general secretary of the Awaj Foundation, a local organisation which fights for workers' rights, said that long hours, bad working conditions, poverty and the overcrowded and insanitary conditions in which garment workers are forced to live made them susceptible to a number of illnesses and diseases.
"They get tuberculosis, kidney problems, diarrhoea, problems with their hearing and there are a huge amount of skin diseases caused by the dust and fibres. People here boil water before they drink it but the garment workers do not have the time to do that. There are also mental health problems brought on by constant stress."
Last year, after garment workers set fire to 16 factories and ransacked 300 more to demand better pay and conditions, and amid pressure from organisations such as Awaj, the Bangladeshi government agreed to introduce a minimum wage of 1,660 taka or £12 a month. The deadline for the new wage, which is supposed to be based on an eight-hour day, passed a month ago, but according to the National Garment Workers' Federation, even this meagre target is not being met, with 60% of factories still flouting the rules.
Workers spoke to the Guardian on the condition that it did not reveal the names of the factories in which they worked. They feared they would be sacked from their already insecure jobs, or that the British buyers would withdraw from the factory altogether and they would lose their jobs. They told us they did not want British companies to pull out, but that they wanted better pay and conditions.
Yesterday, a spokesman for Asda said that it would re-audit all its Bangladeshi factories in the light of the Guardian's findings. He added: "We find abuse of any kind unacceptable. It appears that one of our approved factories, which are audited up to three times a year, has subcontracted this work to another factory without our knowledge and against our wishes. It's disappointing that the Guardian's policy is to keep the name of the factory secret. By doing so no action can be taken to ensure those workers are no longer mistreated. Where we find wrongdoing we put it right."
A spokesman for Primark said that labour conditions were a matter of "considerable concern". In a statement, it said that it had audited all its Bangladeshi suppliers in the last six months and had "agreed a programme of remediation" with those not complying with its code of conduct. It acknowledged that audits were an "imperfect tool" to achieve compliance and that it was working with the Ethical Trading Initiative, an alliance of companies, NGOs, and trade unions, to lobby the Bangladeshi government to improve workers' rights. It added: "We hope that this Guardian report will add to the pressure on the Bangladeshi government to act to protect both its workers and this important source of income and foreign exchange." A spokesman for Tesco said it could not take any action because it had not been not provided with the names of the factories concerned. The spokesman said: "These allegations are serious but without being provided with any detail we cannot investigate them."
He added: "We have stuck by Bangladesh, continued to invest in modern factories and done all we can to ensure that high standards and good conditions are maintained by the most thorough independent audits carried out anywhere in the world. The alternative - and it would be easier in many ways - would be for us to stop sourcing in countries that have economic and social problems which are beyond the capabilities of any organisation working alone to fix. But we don't think that is right for the people of Bangladesh or what our customers would expect us to do."