High time for action to end this sweatshop shame

It is high time for action to crack down on sweatshops, rather than more empty promises from companies and politicians, says War on Want's Paul Collins.

Our guest writer is Paul Collins of War on Want

Two simultaneous events over the weekend – the killing of protesting underpaid workers in Bangladesh making clothes for western retailers, and revelations of exploited Indian contract labour in factories supplying UK brands – must give us pause for thought. The deaths of three Bangladeshi garment workers yesterday and the many others hurt in clashes with police during wage protests underline the desperation among people overseas producing our clothes for a pittance.

More than four years ago War on Want launched a report that revealed workers in Bangladesh toiling up to 80 hours a week making garments for Primark, Tesco and Asda for as little as £8 a month, well below a living wage.

The report demanded the then Labour government in Britain to stop UK retailers exploiting their suppliers’ workers. British ministers sat on their hands, but the Bangladeshi government – dependent on garment exports for 80 per cent of its foreign earnings – raised the minimum wage to £14 a month.

War on Want in 2008 published more research which showed that Bangladeshis in the same six factories earned on average only £19 a month – still far under the living wage needed for decent housing, food, healthcare and education.

Now a new War on Want report – published with the campaign group Labour Behind the Label – shows garment workers in the Indian city of Gurgaon, near the capital Delhi, earn less than half the living wage, producing clothes for more upmarket brands such as Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and Next.

Helpers and thread cutters received only £60 a month, whereas even skilled tailors and checkers earned at most £65 a month – just half a living wage.

Though all the UK retailers highlighted point to their code for voluntary overtime not exceeding 12 hours a week, workers at one factory had to toil up to 140 hours a month overtime, but were paid the standard rate. The other factory’s employees were also forced to toil until 2 am several times a month. Both suppliers banned workers from trade union activities.

Our researchers found workers suffer long hours in sweltering temperatures, verbal and physical abuse, unsafe water and poor sanitation, as well as casual employment, and are denied their entitlement to social rights, protection and benefits. They face a climate of fear and insecurity, where their everyday choices are limited by the contractors, factory owners, landlords and authorities who control their lives.

The workers often cannot afford breakfast and share one-room slum homes with their families or other staff. Researchers found only two toilets for all the residents of 18 rooms. Most workers lack enough money to send their children to school. For over a decade campaigners have exposed in country after country the systemic abuse of workers making clothes for the whole British high street, none of whose retailers ensures a living wage for the people behind their profits.

It is high time for action, rather than more empty promises from companies and politicians.

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