activism business consumerism corporate responsibility human rights poverty social justice

The Asda, Tesco and Primark clothing workers on 7p an hour

Two years after War on Want‘s report on sweatshops, nothing has changed for the Bangladeshi workers producing clothes for Asda, Tesco, and Primark. Workers are still denied a living wage, and work long hours under the threat of harrassment and bullying, with no right to representation.

Today’s report, ‘Fashion Victims II: How UK clothing retailers are keeping workers in poverty‘ (pdf) shares the story of Farzana, a worker in a factory supplying both Tesco and Asda. “On several nights a month I have to work until 3 o’clock in the morning, alongside my regular shifts spanning up to 12 hours a day.”

By Bangladeshi law a working week cannot exceed 60 hours, but workers here regularly work 80 hours in a week – 10-14 hours every day. 1 in 3 work seven days a week to make ends meet. To meet tight deadline, overtime may be compulsory, and even unpaid. This too is illegal in Bangladesh.

Along with the long hours, workers face harassment, and corporal punishment. 60% of female workers have experienced sexual harassment of some kind.

For all this, workers may take home as little as £14 a month. That’s less than 7p an hour. I am regularly told that before we make comparisons, we should remember that everything is cheaper in poor countries. That’s true – a minimum living wage in Bangladesh is £44.82 a month, considerably lower than a living wage here. The average garment worker is paid £19.16 a month.  Based on the Roundtree Foundation’s estimate of a UK living wage, this is equivalent to earning £479.88 a month. Tesco made a profit of £2.8 billion last year – you would think it could stretch to a living wage for anyone producing goods for its stores.

Workers cannot group together and protest, because trade unions are banned. This means that workers cannot make demands together, and it is much easier to say no to individuals than to a united workforce. When management finds evidence of workers organising themselves, those workers responsible lose their jobs.

Asda, Tesco and Primark are all member of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), which to me makes a mockery of the entire project. They have all refused to guarantee a living wage along their supply chain.  The ETI also recognises the right of workers to form trade unions to lobby for better pay and conditions. Although Asda, Tesco and Primark allow their UK staff to do this, they do not recognise the rights of those in the factories overseas.

If this makes you as angry as it should, please write to the government about it. This is Fashion Victims II after all – nothing has changed in the last two years, despite the bad press that the companies received. Voluntary initiatives have failed, and the government should demand higher standard. Write to your MP, and also to Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. You’ll find addresses here, and a sample letter here. War on Want‘s report also includes the addresses of the corporate HQs, so you can write to Asda, Tesco and Primark.

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  1. That’s fine Naomi, you can still shop there, but let them know that you think their practices are unfair. Send them a letter, or talk to a store manager. A regular customer’s feedback is probably more useful to a shop than a whole load of boycotting activists.

  2. Well I work at primark, and I can guarentee talking to the store managers and staff will change absolutely nothing, as we don’t have the power to change anything.

    I also know that primark doesn’t have it’s own workers, it buys from suppliers, so it isn’t there fault that their suppliers are doing wrong, and new policies ensure that each supplier is checked.

    Also, remember.
    Despite what happens, they’re better if with the job and money, then without.

    1. I concur, talking to the on-the-ground staff won’t change anything, which is why I suggest writing to the head office and the government.

      I’m aware that Primark buys from suppliers, as most clothing companies do. However, since it’s Primark’s labels on the product, Primark’s shelves that stock them, and Primark’s shareholders that take the profits, they need to take responsibility for their whole supply chain.

      And yes, saying that people are better off with a job, any job, is a common enough response, but put yourself in their shoes: you’re better off with your Primark job than being in the dole queue, but would that make it okay for Primark to pay you 7p an hour? Clearly not. Luckily for people like you and me, we get a choice about where we work, so companies have to offer us fair wages and conditions, and we have laws that protect us from exploitation. Many people have no choice, and no protection, and Primark is unfortunately exploiting those people.

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