Revealed: Spice Girls T-shirts made in factory paying staff 35p an hour
Workers producing tops sold to raise money for Comic Relief receive far below a living wage
Simon Murphy in Gazipur, Bangladesh
Sun 20 Jan 2019 18.00 GMTLast modified on Mon 21 Jan 2019 01.05 GMT
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.
'Inhuman conditions': life in factory making Spice Girls T-shirts
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 factorythat 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.”
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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 £4.3m 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 speechby 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.”
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.