Bangladeshi workers claim they are slaves to make dresses for brand favoured by Kate and Pippa Middleton
Gethin Chamberlain, for The Sunday People, 17 July 2011
THE harrowing human cost of clothes that workers claim are made for one of Kate Middleton’s favourite high street shops is today exposed by The People.
In an investigation with the War on Want charity, we found a Bangladesh factory where hundreds of women – some only teenagers – claim they slave into the night stitching clothes for stores including Zara.
The girls say they toil up to 16 hours a day six days a week for wages as low as 6p an hour – a breach of international labour laws and codes of conduct.
On those wages, a worker would have to graft every night for six months to afford the £ 49.99 Zara dress Kate wore the day after she wed Prince William in April.
Kate’s sister Pippa also chose a Zara outfit on the same day – a £ 69.99 royal blue blazer.
The brand is the flagship of the world’s largest retailer Inditex, a Spanish company which logged a pounds 1.5billion profit in the first three months of this year alone and which also own the Massimo Dutti and Stradivarius brands.
Inditex signed up Bangladeshi firm Nexus Sweater Ind as an official supplier for its Zara label although the firm says it has not used them since 2009.
Our investigators spoke to workers who say some orders were subcontracted to unregulated local clothes maker Tropical Sweater Ltd.
Women workers at TSL say they are treated like slaves and can’t live on the pittance they’re paid. Last year Bangladeshi workers rioted over wages, forcing government chiefs to double the national minimum wage to £ 25 a month.
But as Inditex prepare for a shareholders’ meeting on Tuesday, the TSL girls say they have to work staggering hours to get even that paltry sum.
Many are from farming families forced into the city by a string of natural disasters that have ravaged Bangladesh in recent years. Typical of them is 17-year-old Salma, whose village home was destroyed by massive floods two years ago.
She said: “My dream was to be a doctor but at 15 I had to start working in a garment factory.
“I moved to Tropical Sweater a year ago as a sewing operator where I regularly stitch and label Zara clothing.
“I work 12 to 16 hours a day and am paid very badly.
“I don’t get overtime and I have no holiday.
“But I have no choice – I don’t want to lose my job.”
Salma says she gets £33.50 a month, a third more than the national minimum.
But to earn it she claims she often has to work an extra 96 hours in overtime. And in addition she says bosses also insist she regularly does the five-hour night shift from 10pm to 3am – for which they give her just 29p.
That works out at less than 6p an hour.
Salma showed us one of her time-cards which reveal in one month she did 288 hours, including 12 days of working from 8am to midnight. She said her marathon stint was rewarded with a wage of 12p an hour and didn’t even add up to the statutory pounds 25.
Salma, who lives with her parents and two brothers in a single room in a Dhaka slum, added: “My salary is not enough to survive on.”
She went on to accuse TSL bosses of forcing workers to endure hellish and insanitary conditions.
Salma said: “The factory is very hot and dark. There is a single, filthy toilet between all of us and the drinking water is not purified.
“Verbal abuse and scolding by the management is very normal behaviour in this factory.”
Her story was backed by another teenage worker, Sahana, who also says she earns about pounds 33 a month.
She told an investigator: “Bosses behave very badly and use bad language to us. I have to work long hours and don’t have time to eat properly. I am as thin as I’ve ever been.
“The water supply is not pure – I should drink boiled water but I have no time to boil it.”
Shamima, 28, started working in clothing factories after losing everything in a cyclone that killed 10,000 people in Bangladesh in 2007. She said she regularly worked 16-hour days as well as night shifts, leaving her so tired she often goes to bed without food.
She added: “I’ve lost all my dreams. I have only one hope – to make a better life for my future children.
“I do not want them to grow up like me and work in a garment factory.”
Meanwhile, War on Want said half the 1,000 Bangladeshi factory workers it spoke to, including some at TSL, claimed they had been beaten up by managers. One in three claimed they had been sexually abused and half said they had been ordered to do overtime while pregnant.
The first Zara store opened in La Coruna, Spain, in 1975 and 10 years later founder Amancio Ortega launched Inditex.
Today Ortega, 75, is the world’s seventh richest man with a fortune of pounds 19billion.
Inditex now has more than 5,000 stores in 78 countries and is planning to open 120 stores in China.
In 2005 Inditex signed up to the Ethical Trading Initiative, a worldwide alliance between trade unions, companies and campaign groups to end Pippa’s worker exploitation.
The ETI code includes limiting overtime to 12 hours a week and insists a fan BLAZER: wages comply with local laws. It also requires a basic living wage with overtime paid at a premium rate, demands hygienic conditions for staff and bars verbal and physical abuse.
Inditex’s own code of conduct goes even further by including a ban on unauthorised subcontracting.
And it promises to act against any breaches in a way that would not backfire on vulnerable workers.
But Greg Muttitt, of War on Want, said: “This investigation exposes the ugly side of Zara in stark contrast to the positive headlines gained for Kate Middleton wearing its dresses.
“Our research shows British high street fashion has still failed to clean up its act and it’s high time the Government stopped this abuse. Time and again retailers have broken pledges to ensure the workers behind their profits earn a living wage.”
The charity will tomorrow publish Stitched Up, a report highlighting the plight of the Bangladeshi workers.
It will say most clothes made in Bangladesh are produced by badlypaid women aged 18 to 32.
After The People contacted Inditex, the company launched an urgent inquiry into the claims. A spokesman said they had no current orders with Nexus but admitted they had in the past. They had not authorised Tropical Sweater to make any clothing for them. The spokesman admitted unauthorised sub-contracting had happened before but did not say at which factory.
Hours later, the spokesman called back to say Inditex had not used Nexus for Zara since 2009.
And he insisted officials visited the plant on Friday but found no trace of any work being done for them – even though the War on Want report said TSL workers had told them they were stitching for the Zara brand in June.
Last year Inditex’s annual report acknowledged subcontracting had been a problem and said in the past two years it has axed 127 suppliers in Asia for breaching its code of conduct or for commercial reasons.