MILES BRIGNALL and SARAH BUTLER
Bangladesh garment factories producing clothes for British retailers are forcing girls as young as 13 to work up to 11 hours a day in appalling conditions, according to an ITV documentary shown on February 6th night.
Undercover filming by the Exposure programme found clothes produced for Lee Cooper, BHS and other UK retailers in factories where workers were physically and verbally abused and fire safety ignored.
Despite promises made by retailers to improve conditions following last year's Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, where at least 1,130 people died and thousands more were injured, staff as young as 13 are filmed in factories being kicked, slapped and hit with a used fabric roll as well as abused with physical threats and insults.
Fire escapes at one factory, Vase Apparel, are shown padlocked, even though hundreds of garment workers have died in fires after being trapped in similar factories over the past few years.
ITV producers fitted local garment workers with secret cameras to record the conditions. One of the women is forced to work 89 hours over seven days at Olira Fashions in Mirpur, a district of Dhaka. Male managers abuse younger girls who they think are not working fast enough and exhausted staff are told they must work all night to get out a big order. They are threatened with beatings or the sack if they don't comply.
Despite rules that under-18s can only work five hours, many are forced to complete 11-hour days, the documentary claims. One 14-year-old girl tells the undercover camera carrier: "We have to work to eat."
Workers at Olira, who are seen producing Lee Cooper jeans – which the factory boss says are destined for the UK – earn basic pay of £30 a month, the programme claims.
At Vase, where BHS school shirts are seen, managers were filmed coaching staff on how to answer any questions put by inspectors who are arriving later that day from a major customer. Staff are told to lie about their working conditions. Managers insist safety equipment that slows production has to be used during the audit, but can be put away once the audit is over. Staff are seen signing documents to say they received nonexistent health and safety training that will be presented to auditors.
The revelations are embarrassing for another retailer, N Brown, whose Southbay shirts sold via its Jacamo website were filmed being produced at Vase. N Brown, which also owns lingerie website Figleaves.com, played a leading role in an international factory safety agreement put together in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse.
An N Brown staff member is seconded to a leading role in the Bangladesh Accord on Fire & Building Safety, which has pledged to check and rectify safety measures in over 1,000 factories in Bangladesh.
Amid huge pressure to improve workers' conditions in the country's £13bn garment industry, nearly 150 retailers and brands, including Arcadia, have signed up to the accord, which aims to survey up to 1,500 factories by October this year as well as train workers.
There is also a separate, weaker, safety deal mostly signed by US retailers including Asda's owner Walmart, while the UK government is backing a Bangladesh government initiative which promises to improve conditions in factories not covered by the other two projects.
N Brown said it had a contract with Vase's sister company Basic Shirts but had terminated that deal after being contacted by the Exposure team.
It said in a statement: "The conditions found at Vase Apparels are wholly unacceptable, illegal and morally reprehensible. We were not aware that any of our products were being made at Vase Apparels. The work had been contracted to Basic Shirts, which operates out of a different factory entirely, and which we had previously audited as part of our sourcing procedures."
Arcadia said that it had been informed that some of its goods had been stored at Vase but made elsewhere at an accredited supplier which owns other factories in Bangladesh.
The company said: "We have carried out a full investigation with our supplier The Fielding Group Ltd, who has categorically confirmed to us that no BHS goods have been made at Vase Apparels.
"Our group operates in over 40 countries and arranges inspections of hundreds of factories each year. We take our responsibilities seriously in all the countries our suppliers source from." ITV said Lee Cooper declined to be interviewed for the programme, and rejected an offer to view the footage. Lee Cooper's parent firm Iconix did not respond to the Guardian's request for a comment.
In a brief statement to ITV, it said: "We employ a strict set of rules to ensure our licensees source responsibly and can confirm that this production is either counterfeit or unauthorised.
"We will take all steps to eliminate the unlawful production of Lee Cooper branded products."
The owner of the Vase factory said that garments were sometimes brought to Vase from other factories for presentations and buyers meetings. It told ITV it carried out "ethical compliance audits" to ensure worker safety. The Olira owners told the programme: "We don't use child labour" but said another factory in the same building had been using children.
First published in The Guardian, February 6, 2014