Asda, Primark and Tesco accused over clothing factories
Long hours and low pay breach industry codes, say workers
Monday July 16, 2007
Workers in a clothing factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photograph: Manish Swarup/AP
Britain's second largest supermarket chain last night launched an investigation into allegations that workers who make its clothes in Bangladesh are being forced to work up to 80 hours a week for as little as 4p an hour.
Asda, one of three major discount clothing retailers accused of breaching international labour standards, said it would audit its suppliers in response to a report in today's Guardian into the pay and conditions of Bangladeshi garment workers who supply British companies.
A spokesman for Primark, which also uses the factories, said Labour conditions were a matter of "considerable concern".
Employees of factories making clothes for George at Asda, Tesco and Primark said their wages were so low that, despite working up to 84-hour weeks, they struggled to provide for their families. There were also reports of physical and verbal abuse by supervisors and of workers being sacked for taking sick leave.
All but one of the eight workers interviewed, from seven different factories, claimed they were forced to work 12-hour days and sometimes all night to finish an order. Workers from factories supplying all three retailers said they were refused access to trade unions and claimed that, in the last month, four colleagues had been dismissed for trying to organise a union.
Parvin, 25, a sewing machine operator making jeans for Primark, told the Guardian she felt "threatened and frightened" after witnessing a colleague being slapped by a supervisor for not meeting her target. Azizul, 28, who works in another factory producing items for Primark, said he had been sacked and his wages withheld for taking two days off to take his baby daughter to hospital.
The three retailers are among the most powerful clothing brands in Britain. Last year, a report estimated the country's burgeoning value-clothes market to be worth £7.8bn. Asda was reportedly the biggest player with 17% of the market, Primark second with 15%, and Tesco fifth after Matalan and New Look with 11%.
The allegations of breaches in international labour standards follow similar claims last year.
All three retailers have signed up to the Ethical Trade Initiative, a voluntary code of conduct which sets out basic rights for employees, including a working week of no more 48 hours, voluntary overtime not exceeding 12 hours a week, and payment of a "living wage". They say they are doing their best to improve workers' rights.
However, one factory owner in Bangladesh, who only supplies to the US and German market, told the Guardian buyers gave him little choice but to keep wages low. Mohammed Lutfor Rahman, chairman of the Luman Group, said: "Buyers who come to Bangladesh tell us, 'we are businessmen, we want to make money. If we see cheaper prices in China we will go there'."
Mr Rahman added: "I would be the happiest man in the world if I could provide my workers with good money, air conditioning, health benefits. They are like children to me. But if I cannot cover the costs of running a factory, it will close."
Charities campaigning for workers' rights accuse retailers of maximising profits by demanding rock-bottom prices from suppliers in the developing world.
John Hilary, the campaigns and policy director of War on Want, said: "Price wars between the three retailers Asda, Tesco and Primark have driven the price of high street clothing down to 50% of what everyone else is charging. You have this relentless pressure on suppliers to keep costs down and, faced with these incredibly powerful retailers, suppliers in Bangladesh and China have no room for manoeuvre. Even the ETI have agreed that the buying practices of the UK retailer sector are driving down wages and having a negative effect on working practices."
Mr Hilary said that factory audits were not reliable enough to ensure better conditions for overseas workers and called for British government regulation.
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."
Primark said that Labour conditions were a matter of "considerable concern". In a statement it said that it had audited every one of its Bangladeshi suppliers in the last six months and had "agreed a programme of remediation" with those not complying with its code of conduct.
A spokesman for Tesco said it could not take any action because it was not provided with the names of the factories concerned. He said: "These allegations are serious but without being provided with any detail we cannot investigate them." He added that Tesco had recently completed unannounced audits at all 48 sites in Bangladesh.