UK retailers under increasing media spotlight

3 July 2008 - 11:21am

In June 2008, War on Want received extensive media coverage after we advised the BBC on issues around garment workers in the developing world. Simon McRae, senior campaigns officer, was interviewed for the Panorama programme Primark: On the Rack, which was watched by over four million viewers.

Our campaign (recently including a protest outside Primark) to improve working conditions and win a living wage for workers supplying clothing to high street chains and supermarkets, was widely covered in the mainstream newspapers, TV and radio.

Furthermore, War on Want, together with Labour Behind the Label, funded a speaking tour for Suhasini Singh (pictured below outside Tesco's AGM). Suhasini is a researcher with the India-based NGO Cividep, which has provided War on Want with research on labour rights issues and factory conditions in Bangalore.

Suhasini gave War on Want direct testimony from workers and information about the conditions faced by those making garments for massive UK companies like Tesco. She was able to attend the company?s AGM and speak directly to Tesco's CEO, Sir Terry Leahy, about the conditions and pay in the sweatshops that make clothes for Tesco.

As the biggest retailer in the country, and a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, Tesco should be leading the way in ensuring that workers making its products are paid a living wage, have the right to join a trade union and don't work excessive hours or under poor conditions. Instead, research carried out by Suhasini for War on Want in Bangalore found that workers in factories supplying Tesco were paid half a living wage, finding it even more difficult to get by now with the increase in global food prices. She took time to answer some questions for us.

Q: What were the conditions and pay like in the factories that you investigated?

A: The working conditions of garment workers are precarious in Bangalore. They have to work for nine to ten hours with a break of half an hour for lunch, that's it! They are forced to complete targets of 100-120 pieces per hour, when under normal circumstances one can do just 60 pieces. Many get paid well under a living wage, yet they are expected to take care of a family of four or more! Overtime is not paid, workplace harassment and abuse are rampant and above all, workers cannot voice their opinion through unions.

Q: Do you think companies are doing enough to ensure that workers in their supply chains are paid properly and have good working conditions? What changes would you like to see made by the companies that buy these clothes?

A: Generally speaking, companies have just managed to improve the physical condition of the factory but nothing beyond that. Workers are paid the minimum wage, which is far below a living wage. Collective bargaining at the workplace is not allowed so there is no other way to increase the wages of workers from what they are getting now. British companies should ensure that suppliers pay living wages to the workers so that they have a decent living. They should allow unionisation in the factory. This will help workers to voice their opinions and demands on various issues. Moreover, freedom to form a union is enshrined in Indian Labour Law; they should respect it.

Q: You met Sir Terry Leahy after the Tesco AGM. What was his reaction to the things you told him about the garment industry in Bangalore?

A: I told him about the deplorable condition of the garment workers in Bangalore producing for Tesco and said that with Tesco's increased profits this year he can actually give a living wage to the workers there. He replied saying, " We will look into it. A lot of research has to be done to determine the living wage. We [Tesco] want to work with the best employers in India." I wonder if it is his genuine desire to put in some effort in this direction, or if this is just one of those fake statements!

War on Want is campaigning to make sure that workers supplying big UK supermarkets get a fair deal. Time and again we?ve uncovered poverty pay, unacceptable working conditions and a lack of trade union rights in the factories that provide clothes for the UK high street. The companies that make massive profits off the back of the clothing industry have a responsibility to ensure that their suppliers treat workers fairly and that cheap clothing doesn?t come at the expense of workers? rights.

Please join War on Want today and help us to campaign and support our partners working to improve the lives of people in sweatshops around the world. The more we can raise public awareness on this issue in the UK, the more pressure UK retailers will be under to improve the conditions of people producing their clothes.







Tesco 'sweatshop shame' fury

26 June 2008 - 3:40pm

Clothes workers paid 16p an hour

Workers making clothes at a factory in India for the top British retailer Tesco are toiling long hours for as little as 16p an hour - only half a living wage.

This warning is signalled today by the charity War on Want and the campaign group Labour Behind the Label, which will bring the Indian researcher who uncovered the scandal to protest at Tesco's annual meeting tomorrow (Friday 27 June 2008).

It follows BBC TV's Panorama on Monday (23 June) which showed some of India's poorest people, including children, working long, gruelling hours for poverty pay on Primark clothes in slum workshops and refugee camps.

According to the research, employees at a large Tesco supplier factory in Bangalore are struggling to survive on less than £1.50 a day for a 60-hour week, with a 20 per cent hike in rice prices making life even harder.

Employees in the factory earn on average £38 a month, and the lowest paid receive just £30, while the Bangalore Garment and Textile Workers' Union last year calculated a living wage as at least £52 a month. Employees complained that bosses forced them to work overtime or face the sack and they receive only half the extra hours recorded.

Workers say the high pressure to produce orders means they risk dismissal for failing to meet double their normal targets, requesting sick leave or arriving late on two consecutive days. Some employees, fearing the loss of their jobs if they miss targets, skip lunch and do not drink water in order to reduce the number of times they go to the toilet.

Haneefa, who lives with her parents and is also their carer, earns just £38 a month. She admits: "I don't buy anything for myself. I can't save anything from what I earn. It is difficult to survive on this money."

The factory does not recognise a trade union. And some workers fear managers are targeting them for potential firing for their individual union membership, which would flout Tesco's ethical code of conduct. One employee told colleagues about a forthcoming union meeting on a Sunday, the workers' only day off. Bosses then imposed compulsory overtime and threatened staff with severe punishment if they failed to work on that day.

At last year's Tesco AGM, War on Want submitted a shareholder resolution demanding Tesco guarantee the fair treatment for workers as promised under its ethical code of practice. Tesco opposed the resolution that sought to ensure decent pay and conditions for overseas workers. But an unprecedented one in five Tesco shareholders refused to support the retailer's opposition to the resolution.

The new research follows War on Want's earlier report Fashion Victims that revealed workers in Bangladesh paid as little as 5p an hour to produce clothes for Tesco.

Simon McRae, senior campaigns officer at War on Want, said: "Our new evidence again reveals how Tesco's cheap clothing comes at the shameful price of workers' poverty. Again and again, scandals exposing UK retailers exploiting garment workers underline that the public cannot trust stores to police themselves. It is high time the British government legislate to stop this abuse."

Martin Hearson, campaigns coordinator at Labour Behind the Label, said: "How many times do we need to hear stories like these before Tesco gets its act together and pays workers a living wage? Every little really does help garment workers living below the breadline, especially as food and rent costs shoot up."


  • The research, Tesco and Indian garment workers - lessons forgotten, can be downloaded below.
  • The researcher, Suhasini Singh, who works for the Indian labour rights organisation Cividep, is available for interview.
  • Tesco's annual meeting will take place at 11am tomorrow (Friday 27 June) at the National Motorcycle Museum, Coventry Road, Solihull B92 0EJ

CONTACTS Paul Collins, media officer, War on Want (+44) (0)20 7549 0584 or (+44) (0)7983 550728 Martin Hearson, campaigns coordinator, Labour Behind the Label (+44) (0)7727 235391

Tesco 'slave labour' row

26 June 2008 - 1:00am

The Evening Standard

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23 June 2008 - 11:12am

War on Want targets flagship London store

Primark: On The Rack

20 June 2008 - 6:24pm

At 9pm on June 23, BBC1's Panorama will put Primark's claims that it can deliver cheap, fast fashion without breaking ethical guidelines to the test.

War on Want story wins award

13 June 2008 - 2:32pm

A front page splash news story in a leading British newspaper, produced with help from the anti-poverty charity War on Want, secured a coveted prize in the One World Media Awards last night.

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11 June 2008 - 5:00pm

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