M&S challenges 'child labour' allegations

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The Independent Online

Marks & Spencer yesterday hit back at potentially damaging allegations of incorrect labelling of garments in its stores and the use of child labour by one of its suppliers.

The company issued a detailed response saying it would "vigorously challenge" the allegations. David Sieff, M&S' head of corporate affairs and a member of one of the company's founding families, also appeared on the Breakfast With Frost programme on BBC1 yesterday to present the company's case. He said the company had conducted rigorous checks to ensure it was meeting all labour legislation.

Marks & Spencer went on the offensive ahead of a two-part World in Action documentary, entitled "Saint Michael - has the halo slipped?" which will be screened by Granada tonight. The programme will centre on the allegations of the use of child labour in a factory controlled by one of Marks & Spencer's suppliers. It also alleges that the company has incorrectly labelled garments as "Made in the UK" when they have actually been manufactured elsewhere.

The programme is expected to claim that the Moroccan factory has employed workers as young as 12. It also alleges that girl workers toil for just pounds 11.80 a week, in stifling conditions where they are treated poorly by their supervisors.

Next week's programme is thought to include allegations of copyright infringement. The company ran into trouble last summer when it was accused of copying the design of a swimsuit.

Marks & Spencer has already withdrawn a batch of women's pyjamas which were labelled as "Made in the UK" when they had been manufactured in Morocco. The garments had been made at a factory controlled by Desmond & Co, a Northern Ireland textile company.

M&S dismissed this case as "a one-off mistake" and said it had sent senior managers on an unannounced visit to Desmond's Sicome factory in Morocco in December, to monitor conditions.

They found:

t No evidence of anyone employed below 15 years of age.

t That Sicome has government certificate of approval that the site meets all national local Moroccan laws. The certificates also state that no employees are under 15.

t Those employees that are aged 15 are apprentices engaged in light textile duties and do not operate machinery until they are 16.

t That the factory is visited twice a year by a doctor from the local Labour Medical Inspectorate, who has confirmed that it meets Moroccan legislation.

M&S says it has written to all suppliers, restating their responsibilities with respect to contract specifications.

Further allegations could be hugely damaging to Marks & Spencer, one of Britain's' most respected companies. A company spokesman said yesterday: "We have built our reputation over 112 years and we value it highly. Obviously these allegations strike at the foundations on which that reputation has been built and we therefore take them very seriously." He added that it would be watching the programmes closely before deciding on its next step.

Marks & Spencer is known as one of Britain's best employers. In the UK, stores have rest rooms for staff feeling unwell. Doctors, dentists and chiropodists also visit the stores to conduct free checks on workers.

M&S claimed it had tried to co-operate with Granada but said the relationship had "not been easy". Granada had been expected to release further details of the programme yesterday but later changed its mind. Yesterday it said it was still editing the programme. A spokes-man said: "Anyone who watches the programme will be able to make up their own minds."