I know there is nothing new in a report on Western companies sourcing goods from factories where the workers are paid starvation wages to work long hours in appalling conditions. Still, it was heartening to see that the following story is still highly newsworthy. It was a top item on the BBC breakfast news and it is widely reported in the British press.
War on Want issued a report today on the working conditions in Bangladeshi factories. These factories provide garments for Tesco, Asda and Primark. The following is an extract from the Independent report.
According to the report some Bangladeshi workers making cheap clothes for Asda, Tesco and Primark are paid as little as 3p an hour. Basic pay in factories that cut and sew fabric for budget chains can be just £8 a month for an 80-hour week. With overtime of around £3 a month, some workers were receiving just £11 a month for a week’s work - 3.1p an hour. This is half the living wage in Bangladesh. Workers have also complained that joining a trade union was banned and being cheated by bosses of overtime pay. Beatings and sexual harassment were also said to occur.
War on Want interviewed 60 workers from six factories for its report, Fashion Victims. The charity chose the six factories at random to highlight conditions at suppliers for the budget end of British fashion. All six supplied Asda, four Tesco and three Primark.
Asda, Tesco and Primark are members of the Ethical Trade Initiative, whose code of conduct imposes a 48-hour week for workers and stipulates they should have one day off. Overtime shall be voluntary and not exceed 12 hours a week. However, the report said: "Investigation for this report shows that, in reality, working hours in factories supplying all three retailers far exceed this maximum. Across all six factories, most workers told us that they work from 12 to 16 hours per day and regularly work 80 hours a week."
The report said factories passed audits by the Western retailers by intimidating staff to lie. Many auditors gave factories 20 days' notice, plenty of time to clean dormitories, coach the workers and falsify records. The report said: "Retailers like Asda and Tesco often point to the audits they use to check working conditions. But these kinds of bulk auditing systems provide only a superficial assessment."
Dr Liu Kaiman, of the Institute of Contemporary Observation in Shenzhen, China, was quoted as saying: "The retailers and their suppliers are playing an elaborate game. They only want to reassure customers, not to improve conditions."
Primark said that if War on Want provided details of the factories, it would investigate. "Our low prices are the result of technology, efficient distribution and supply, bulk-buying and the fact that we spend almost nothing on advertising," said a spokesman. Asda said only organisations like War on Want and the retailers were trying to help workers and promised to introduce more unannounced audits and free phone lines for whistleblowers.
I doubt that this report will have much effect on Asda, Tesco and Primark sales. What do to? What would force such companies to improve pay and working conditions? Perhaps the only thing that may have any chance of working in the short term is to continue to shame the companies into action given that an egalitarian socialist society that encompasses the world is a long, long way off…
The full report is available from the War on Want website