Workers producing tops sold to raise money for Comic Relief receive far below a living wage
Spice Girls T-shirts sold to raise money for Comic Relief’s “gender justice” campaign were made at a factory in Bangladesh where women earn the equivalent of 35p an hour during shifts in which they claim to be verbally abused and harassed, a Guardian investigation has found.
The charity tops, bearing the message “#IWannaBeASpiceGirl”, were produced by mostly female machinists who said they were forced to work up to 16 hours a day and called “daughters of prostitutes” by managers for not hitting targets.
Money raised from sales of the £19.40 T-shirts will be donated to Comic Relief’s fund to help “champion equality for women”. The charity is due to receive £11.60 for each of the T-shirts, which were commissioned and designed by the band, but said it has yet to be given any money.
Announcing the partnership, the Spice Girls said the cause was important to them because “equality and the movement of people power have always been at the heart of the band”.
But one of the machinists at the factory that produced the garments – modelled on social media by the TV presenter Holly Willoughby, the singers Sam Smith and Jessie J, and the Olympian Jessica Ennis-Hill – said: “We don’t get paid enough and we work in inhuman conditions.”
The T-shirts, which also have the words “gender justice” on the back, were made by workers earning significantly less than a living wage. The factory is part-owned by a minister in Bangladesh’s authoritarian coalition government, which won 96% of the vote last month in an election described as “farcical” by critics. There is no suggestion any of the celebrities were aware of conditions at the factory.
A spokesman for the Spice Girls said they were “deeply shocked and appalled” and would personally fund an investigation into the factory’s working conditions. Comic Relief said the charity was “shocked and concerned”.
Both said they had checked the ethical sourcing credentials of Represent, the online retailer commissioned by the Spice Girls to make the T-shirts, but it had subsequently changed manufacturer without their knowledge. Represent said it took “full responsibility” and would refund customers on request. The band said Represent should donate profits to “campaigns with the intention to end such injustices”.
The company behind the factory that made the T-shirts, Interstoff Apparels, said the findings would be investigated but were “simply not true”. However, a catalogue of evidence about conditions faced by the employees was uncovered, including allegations that:
Some machinists are paid 8,800Tk (£82) a month, according to a recent payslip – meaning they earn the equivalent of 35p an hour for a 54-hour week. The sum is well below the 16,000Tk unions have been demanding and falls far short of living wage estimates.
Employees are forced to work overtime to hit “impossible” targets of sewing thousands of garments a day, meaning they are sometimes working 16-hour shifts that finish at midnight.
Factory workers who do not make the targets are verbally abused by management and reduced to tears. Some have been made to work despite ill-health.
The revelations shine a light on the risks of complex supply chains and will add to longstanding concerns over conditions at manufacturers of garments sold at considerable markups by British retailers.
Saying the conditions appeared to be “far beyond the normal illegalities” at factories in Bangladesh, Dominique Muller, the policy director at the campaign group Labour Behind the Label, added: “It is absolutely essential that celebrities, charities and brands ensure that their goods are made in factories which pay a decent wage and provide decent work.”
The Spice Girls are “deeply shocked and appalled” by the Guardian’s findings, according to a spokesman for the band, who said they found it “heartbreaking to hear about the treatment that these women receive”. The band had sought assurances from Represent, the online retailer that sold the T-shirts, that the garments would be ethically made, and said the manufacturer was changed without their knowledge.
The band pledged to personally fund an investigation into the factory’s working conditions and demanded Represent donate profits to “campaigns with the intention to end such injustices”.
A Comic Relief spokesman said the charity was “shocked and concerned” and had also checked the ethical sourcing credentials of the supplier, which was then changed without its knowledge. The charity was due to receive approximately £11.60 for each £19.40 T-shirt sold but had yet to be given any money, the spokesman added.
Represent said it would refund customers on request, calling the reported conditions at the factory “appalling and unacceptable”.
A spokesman said: “Represent has strict ethical sourcing standards for all of our manufacturers, and we had felt confident printing on blank shirts from Stanley/Stella for this campaign due to the brand’s strong reputation and leadership within the Fair Wear Foundation.
“To clarify, Comic Relief and Spice Girls did everything in their power to ensure ethical sourcing, and we take full responsibility for the choice of Stanley/Stella in this campaign, and confirm that this is something that we didn’t bring to the attention of Spice Girls or Comic Relief.”
The factory’s co-owner Shahriar Alam, a Bangladeshi foreign affairs minister, said he did not think it was “right from a journalistic point of view to add my name to this story”. He admitted being a part-owner and co-founder of the company behind the factory, Interstoff, but said he resigned from the board five years ago.
Interstoff Apparels’ director, Naimul Bashar Chowdhury, confirmed the factory produced blank T-shirts for Stanley/Stella. He said Alam was “a mere shareholder of the company” and was not involved in the management of the business.
He said the company would investigate the Guardian’s findings but also described them as “simply not true”, adding that Interstoff has a “zero-tolerance policy on harassment and use of any slangs or abusive language”. However, he admitted there had been “single incidents” in the “long past where verbal abuse have resulted to employee dismissal”.
He said no complaints had been received about excessive targets and the company adhered to the government’s legal minimum wages. It has a “participation committee” elected by workers to voice complaints, he said, adding that the factory is regularly audited.
“The living wage is a debatable and subjective issue; we for ourselves can say our basic pay is as per the local law and we have over that different performance-based financial incentives,” Chowdhury added.
He pointed out the company employs 80 disabled workers, staff are trained about harassment and abuse, and a medical centre at the factory provides healthcare. Pregnant workers are given monthly checkups, Chowdhury said.
Bruno Van Sieleghem, the sustainability manager at Stanley/Stella, said the brand was investigating the findings and “strongly committed to help this country and his workers to improve their welfare”. The Fair Wear Foundation, a organisation funded by brands that works to improve standards, audits Interstoff every three years, he said, adding that the company’s team is “closely monitoring” FWF’s “corrective action plan”.
He said Stanley/Stella was aware that machinists at Interstoff work overtime until 9pm, but not that they stayed on until midnight. He said the brand had received no reports about employees complaining of harassment at the factory.
He said the brand, which received approximately €5 (£4.40) for each T-shirt, was committed to improving standards for garment workers in Bangladesh, but admitted it used factories in the country because they offer a “competitive price”. The T-shirts were printed by a company in the Czech Republic, Van Sieleghem added.
FWF said it inspected the factory in December, interviewing 30 workers off-site. The organisation said some “non-compliances” were discovered, but the interviews “did not reflect the allegations of harassment in the factory”. However, the foundation acknowledged that this “does not mean this did not happen”.
It described the hours at the factory as “excessive”, but FWF said it found workers are “free to refuse overtime”. It said it supported staff being paid a living wage.
The factory was employed to produce the T-shirts by the Belgian brand Stanley/Stella, which claimed to closely monitor operations. But Muller warned: “The evidence coming out of this factory clearly shows the failure of auditing and current brand monitoring. Stanley/Stella claim to have monitored all their Bangladesh factories, and yet the evidence shows gross violations of labour laws and human rights. Brands must step up their game.”
Bruno Van Sieleghem, the sustainability manager at Stanley/Stella, said the company was investigating the findings and remained “strongly committed to help this country and workers to improve their welfare”.
The T-shirts were produced at Interstoff’s factory in Gazipur, about three hours’ drive from the capital, Dhaka. The company is co-owned by Shahriar Alam, a Bangladeshi foreign affairs minister, and makes garments for a number of British retailers. Interstoff exported £43m of goods and made a £2m pre-tax profit in 2014-15, according to accounts filed with Companies House in the UK. In 2013-14, it made a £2.5m pre-tax profit.
Alam, whose government has been accused of cracking down on free speech by arresting reporters, said he did not think it was “right from a journalistic point of view to add my name to this story”. He admitted being a part-owner and co-founder of Interstoff, but said he resigned from the board five years ago. Interstoff said he was not involved in the management of the business.
A campaigner in Bangladesh, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from the government, said: “The women who are producing these clothes are getting poverty wages. They don’t have a dignified job. What kind of gender justice is that?”
According to the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a global coalition of trade unions, workers’ groups and human rights organisations, the monthly living wage for Bangladesh in 2017 was 37,661Tk. Another report, produced by academics for ISEAL, a non-profit group, set the living wage for Gazipur at 13,630Tk in 2016. In 2014, Comic Relief pledged to pay all its employees a living wage.
But workers in Gazipur, whose ID passes were seen by the Guardian, face a different reality.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a machinist who has worked at the factory for more than five years and earned 9,080Tk a month, including an attendance bonus, said: “We hardly get anything. The wages we get are very minimum. It’s barely enough to survive.”
• Machinists at the Interstoff factory in Gazipur stitch the garments together for about 35p an hour.
• The T-shirts are shipped to the Czech Republic, where another company prints the #IWannaBeASpiceGirl slogan.
• The Belgian brand Stanley/Stella, which oversees the production process, receives approximately €5 (£4.40) for each T-shirt from the US “crowdselling platform” Represent.
• The Spice Girls, who have announced that proceeds from the T-shirts will go to Comic Relief, appear on The Jonathan Ross Show in November, with the host proudly holding up one of the garments to the camera.
• Represent, which had been commissioned by the Spice Girls to get the T-shirts made, puts them on sale online for £19.40 each plus postage and packaging.
• Comic Relief said about £11.60 from the sale of each T-shirt was given to the charity.
The machinist, who has neck problems from being hunched over a sewing machine, struggles to get by and provide for her seven-year-old son.
“Inside the production manager’s office, they use very bad, abusive language, like ‘this isn’t your father’s factory’, ‘the door is wide open, leave if you can’t meet the production goals’,” she said.
“Sometimes they use more obscene language like ‘khankir baccha’ (daughter of a prostitute), and many more that I can’t even say.
“Sometimes many female workers can’t bear the insults and pressure from the management, and they quit. Even last month, a few of my colleagues left because they faced very bad behaviour and they were shattered.”
Machinists at the factory, which employs about 4,000 people, work from 8am until 5pm six days a week, including an hour’s paid lunch break a day, but are regularly forced to do overtime, workers claim.
The overtime is understood to be paid at a higher rate to regular shifts. The mother-of-one, who lives in a small room with her husband and child, said: “If the management wants us to do overtime then we don’t have any other choice but to do it.”
She estimated she has to work overtime in the evenings for half the days in the month. Last year, the machinist added, a colleague who was three months’ pregnant quit after she was forced by management to work until midnight despite vomiting.
She also claimed employees often faint in the heat of the factory, while many experience neck and back problems.
Another machinist, who has worked for Interstoff since 2013, said she was forced to take out loans to get by.
The single mother-of-two earns 8,450Tk a month including an attendance bonus. She recently had to borrow 20,000Tk from her brother.
“The amount I get paid is not enough at all. You see I am the only breadwinner of the family. I singlehandedly have to pay for my daughter’s education and also have to meet the expenses of the family as well,” she said.
“Our supervisor is very intimidating and scary. We always try avoiding any confrontation with him; we don’t want to face him. They always set the target production so high that we practically could never hit them. I don’t remember when was the last time we hit the target goal.”
The garment industry accounts for 80% of Bangladesh’s exports, employing more than 4 million workers. While it has aided the country’s economic growth, the industry has been beset by controversy over low wages and unsafe working conditions.
In 2013, 1,134 people died when the Rana Plaza building collapsed due to structural failures.
This article was amended on 22 January 2019 to correct the figure for goods exported by Interstoff in 2014-15 from £4.3m to £43m.
Additional reporting by Redwan Ahmed