Fashion Victims report
Eighty-hour weeks for 5p an hour, forced overtime and potentially deadly working conditions are what many Bangladeshi garment workers face every day, courtesy of Primark, Asda and Tesco.
These budget retailers - which have all promised ethical treatment to suppliers - are routinely buying from factories where workers toil in appalling conditions to meet the ever-stingier demands of retailers.
New research published by War on Want in Fashion Victims has linked sweatshop workers directly to the high street stores they supply. In the past this link has been difficult to prove, but garment workers we interviewed confirmed that they were sewing for Primark, Asda and Tesco. Primark and Tesco threw up their hands in horror and denied any responsibility. But they know full well what goes on in these factories. When they demand lower prices from factory owners there is only one variable they can cut - labour costs. When squeezed by the buyers, owners will slash those expenses any way they can.
The garment industry is vital to Bangladesh. It employs nearly two million workers and accounts for 75% of the country's exports. But recent events have seen the industry face a tumultuous few years. A string of factory blazes and collapses that killed or injured hundreds of people was followed by a series of strikes led by our partner, the National Garment Workers Federation. In an industry where union membership often brings dismissal, participating in strikes took great courage. The workers' protests won them a critical 50% rise in the minimum wage to £12 a month. But this figure still falls far short of the country's living wage of £22 a month.
It is critical that retailers like Asda, Primark and Tesco stay in Bangladesh and ensure their suppliers are fairly treated and compensated. The time has come for the British government to admit its policy of industry self-regulation has failed and to introduce legislation that will protect suppliers.
The problems we identified are systemic and the situation in Bangladesh is not unique. Stories reported in Fashion Victims have parallels in developing nations' factories around the world. As long as retailers demand products for always-lower prices, these most vulnerable workers will suffer the consequences.
- This report was followed up by Fashion Victims II in 2009