Topshop clothes made by workers paid 22 - 40 pence per hour

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The Times On-line, Aug 07

Factories supplying Sir Philip Green, who is based in Monaco and is worth nearly £5 billion, employ hundreds of Sri Lankan, Indian and Bangladeshi workers in Mauritius where they labour for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week.

Workers told The Sunday Times that they were recruited in their home countries by self-employed agents who promised wages up to five times what they receive. They pay up to £725 to get the job, equivalent to seven months’ earnings.

Once in Mauritius they receive as little as 22p to 40p an hour, about 40% below the local average wage. In at least one firm salaries are set according to race, with those from Bangladesh paid substantially less than Sri Lankans.

Green, rated seventh in The Sunday Times Rich List, largely avoids personal tax by paying dividends to his wife, Lady Tina, who lives offshore. In 2005 she was paid £1.2 billion, which amounted to £3.3m for every day of the year.

He told a reporter last week that he was having a marvellous time on his yacht off the coast of Turkey. A colour-ful character, he likes extravagant gestures. He spent an estimated £5m flying 100 friends to his 55th birthday party in the Maldives earlier this year where they were reportedly entertained by George Michael and Jennifer Lopez.

Confronted by The Sunday Times over the workers’ allegations, Green told one reporter that he had previously threatened to punch her colleague “on the nose . . . and throw him out of a window”.

The factories in Mauritius produce clothes for his firm, Arcadia, which owns Topshop, Topman, Burton, Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge. Last year Green signed up the super-model Kate Moss to design a range of clothes for Topshop.

Critics say the low wages and long hours amount to “slave labour”. Neil Kearney, of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation, said: “Because of the economic conditions of a country like Mauritius, companies are unable to attract local labour. Instead they recruit migrant workers, who pay a significant fee for the job. Many migrant workers who go to work in these garment factories are like slaves.”

Workers making his clothes, many of whom were fearful of talking to a reporter, described how they are kept in crowded dormitories and work from 7am until late. “When I go to bed at the end of the day, I lay down and weep,” said one woman.

“There is a lot of pressure on us to get our targets. If we do not reach the target of 50 pieces [segments of T-shirts] per hour, then we are sent back to our dormitories and suspended,” she claimed.

The woman, a Bangladeshi worker at Compagnie Mauricienne de Textile (CMT), which makes clothes for Topman, said she had to work 12-hour days for £64 a month.

A worker at Star Knitwear, which makes T-shirts for the Topshop Kate Moss range, said they were paid £112 a month - equivalent to about 40p an hour. The T-shirts are sold in Topshop for £12.

There is growing concern within the UK fashion industry over the use of Third World labour. Jane Shepherdson, who resigned from Topshop as brand director last year, said consumers cannot keep buying cheap clothes and “not ask where they come from”.

Green does not own factories which manufacture clothes for his high street stores. He instead uses a network of independently owned factories which make garments to specifications provided by the tycoon. The process is supervised by Arcadia staff.

Arcadia is one of the few high street retailers which has not signed up to the ethical trading initiative, which sets out minimum standards and whose signatories include Next, Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Asda.

Instead, Green’s company has drawn up its own code of conduct for suppliers. This stipulates that employees should not work more than 48 hours per week. However, CMT confirmed last week that its workers were contracted for up to 70 hours, while Star said its employees usually worked 60 hours.

Yesterday Green said he was treating the allegations seriously and would investigate. He said that monitoring conditions in factories he did not own was a complicated process: “I am interested in getting things right. We have processes and procedures which all factories sign up to.

“I sent inspectors to factories to look at the working conditions, to see that they are not working in sweat-shops, that the working conditions are good. I can’t stand there and count how many hours people are working. Last night I interviewed a woman who was there four weeks ago. She said the factory was in excellent shape.

“You are telling me that factories are happy to breach our code of conduct. I’ve got to look into it.”

A spokesman for Moss declined to comment.

The Sunday Times follow-up article

LAST week Sir Philip Green was relaxing on holiday in his usual way. The billionaire was cruising on board his £30m 165ft yacht Lionheart, drinking Cristal champagne and shouting into his mobile phone.

Callers inquiring whether the tycoon was concerned about problems within his Arcadia retail empire were dealt with abruptly. “Foot and mouth – now that’s what I’d call a crisis – and I haven’t got that,” Green told one journalist.

The lifestyle of Green, a man who celebrated his 50th birthday with a £5m toga party in Cyprus and who two years ago hired Beyonce to sing at the £4m bar mitzvah of his son, stands in contrast to the lives of workers at the front line of his empire.

In an office in the Sri Lankan town of Dehiwala, one senior worker spoke out over her treatment while working at a textile factory which makes clothes for Green – and what happened when she and her fellow workers complained.

Amali, 32, is typical of the migrant workers who travel between continents in search of work in the global textile trade. She received a leaflet from recruiters who travel from town to town in Sri Lanka advertising vacancies for garment factory workers in Mauritius.

The deal was simple – potential workers had to pay a fee of up to £725 to an agent who would arrange air tickets and a three-year job. It looked attractive as the money promised was far more than that offered for similar work in Sri Lanka.

Many others are recruited in a similar way. They pay the agents, who advertise in local newspapers, between £350 and £725 for a job offer and an air-line ticket to Mauritius. Many mortgage their smallholdings to pay the agents’ fees.

However, workers claim that their wages are substantially less than promised. According to a union official, one worker was told she would be paid about £500 a month in Mauritius but received only £100.

When Amali arrived at the factory in Mauritius owned by a company called CMT in May 2005, the reality – and the pay – were very different from what she said had been promised.

“We were put in dormitories – approximately 20ft-30ft, 40-50 workers huddled together in this room,” she claimed. “There was no space to move around. For the 985 employees [in the factory] there were only 10 toilets and at least three of them did not work at any time. More often there was no water in the toilets. The food was so bad we could not consume it.”

Inside the factory, women sit in rows at sewing machines. One sews the hem while others work on the arms, neck or sleeves. “There was no air conditioning so on sunny days it was steaming hot and we sweated while working. The temperatures were well over 32C,” said Amali, who took the job to send money back to her mother and sisters in southwest Sri Lanka.

By January this year, Amali had been promoted to be a “matron” at the factory in charge of the Sri Lankans. She decided to take a stand against the conditions. With her fellow workers she complained about the living conditions, the food, the lack of any leave or rest time and a working day that could on some occasions last 17 hours, from 7am to midnight.

The workers claim that their wages were then stopped. They went on strike, which the unions say is illegal in Mauritius. The response, they claim, was deportation.

“They took us to the airport and left us there for three days. We could not travel. We had no tickets. Armed gunmen, who we were told were from the Mauritius armed forces, came and threatened us. We feared we would be shot if we continued to protest. We were then kept in a camp,” Amali said.

“Thereafter 174 of us were given tickets and asked to leave Mauritius. We were told that 300 others were detained in a jungle area in Sampiya and that they lived inside freight containers.”

More than 300 Chinese workers had previously protested and gone on strike. They had been tear-gassed by police. More than 100 were deported, according to unions.

Last week a Sunday Times reporter travelled to Mauritius to interview workers and their union representatives at factories operated by CMT and Star Knitwear. Sitting outside a square concrete hostel at Star Knitwear, workers eating chapati bread described the lines of bunk beds with only one toilet for every 15 men.

One 50-year-old man had left behind his wife and daughter. “I have pain in my back and in my neck because I am in the same position all day,” he said. “I am annoyed and sad that I don’t get the money I was promised by the agent in India. Some people have tried to speak out about the working conditions here, but they have been sent back to India. I work from 7am until 8.30pm and in the same position all day long.”

A 27-year-old from Bangalore said that he had had back surgery while working at Star Knitwear where he has been for three years. “I wake up at 5am and start work at 7am,” he said. “I have bad health. It is hard to wear the mask they give me because of my health. The agent cheated me.”

CMT – Compagnie Mauricienne de Textile – operates several factories on the island. One, visited last week, is a concrete block guarded by security men and surrounded by 10ft-high steel fences, where women from the Indian sub-continent work and sleep.

Although the workers are now given one day off a week following Sri Lankan protests earlier this year, they are still unhappy about their treatment.

One Bangladeshi woman said: “I am tired at the end of the day. I miss my family, especially my son. I have been working here for four months. When I go to bed at the end of the day, I lay down and weep . . . They are getting cheap labour.”

A copy of a contract from CMT shows that employees are obliged to work 70 hours a week and are not entitled to any holiday or paid sick leave for the first year of their employment. They are awarded a bonus of a month’s salary if they complete a year’s service and 50p an hour overtime for anything over the 70-hour week. The contract also says that CMT has the right to withhold a fifth of workers’ salaries which is paid only when the three-year employment contract is completed.

Arcadia’s code of conduct for suppliers says workers should not be required to work more than 48 hours a week on a regular basis. Last month the federation of Mauritian trade unions made a formal complaint to the country’s prime minister about the “conditions of service, conditions of living and [the] salaries” of migrant textile workers in the country.

Fayzal Ally Beegun, a local union official, said: “Many workers are scared to speak about conditions. They have seen other workers sent home after complaining. However, workers have told me they work very long hours, they are under lots of pressure and we believe that they are being exploited.” Arcadia has not signed up to the ethical trading initiative, which sets out minimum standards. Green said this weekend that Arcadia used internationally recognised inspectors who regularly audited the factories but added that it would investigate any potential breaches of its own code for the hours that suppliers’ employees worked.

Firms such as Nike and Gap, which had previously been found to have poor working conditions in suppliers’ factories, now have independent vetting procedures and publish annual reports of their findings.

Yesterday Ahmed Parker, a director of Star Knitwear, said: “We respect all the conditions [stipulated] by the government.”

He added: “We can’t use Mauritian workers, unfortunately. Mauritian workers don’t want to work in the textile industry. The industry is more demanding because when you sit on a machine all day, they find it more demanding than working in a hotel as a waiter or doing rooms.

“Obviously there will be people that complain. There will be people that find it difficult. We have had problems with agents in the past, like everybody else.”

François Woo, managing director of CMT, said: “As far as the conditions of work of our labour force are concerned, our company not only complies with all the relevant conditions and requirements imposed by law but further constantly improves them to ensure the standards are at all times higher than those set.

“Our company is regularly subject to social compliance audits from independent auditing companies. Our company has no reason to doubt the integrity of government-licensed recruitment agents.”

Additional reporting: Iqbal Athas, Sri Lanka

£25 a week

Workers at textile factories in Mauritius, including CMT and Star Knitwear, are typically paid about £100 a month. They say in order to earn this they have to work 70 hours a week.

They may also receive free bed and board, which costs the firms about £2.80 a week per worker. The highest-paid workers are those from Sri Lanka and India, with Bangladeshis often paid less than £70 a month. Factory owners claim this is because they have lower wages in their home country and have fewer skills.

The average wage in Mauritius is £205 a month, according to the most recent government statistics. Those working in hotels and restaurants are paid an average £170 a month while those in large sugar cane plantations receive about £150 monthly.