Their work will be overseen by the Ethical Trading Initiative, an alliance of companies, trade unions and non-governmental organisations supported by the British government. Representatives from these groups are now in discussion with their Hong Kong counterparts and Asian suppliers who own factories in China to develop a monitoring policy.
The initiative comes as more British retailers are drawing up codes of conduct for their suppliers, in response to growing public pressure about the exploitation of Asian garment workers. According to new research from the Catholic aid agency Cafod, pay and conditions in clothing factories across Asia remain appalling and the best hope of improvement is to ensure that codes of conduct are implemented.
Of the top seven British retailers, which between them sell 40 per cent of clothes in the UK, only C&A has attempted to set up a system of independent monitoring. It brought in an outside company to carry out spot checks on its suppliers, resulting in the suspension of 30 companies last year.
"Retailers know there is a problem and they accept that they are responsible for doing something about it," said Duncan Green of Cafod, "but the complicated system of sub-contracting means they might not be aware of the specifics; it took C&A three years to find out which factories were making its clothes."
Three of the four British companies on the Chinese scheme joined up after their own attempts at overseeing conditions in their suppliers' factories ran into difficulty.
The problem, said Phil Wells, director of the Fair Trade Foundation and manager of the pilot scheme, is that information on working conditions is difficult to come by in China because the only trade union, ACFTU, is part of the ruling Communist party and there is no tradition of grassroots organisations.
In addition, the leverage that British companies can exert is limited because they only buy a small percentage of each factory's output. Ironically, this means that companies which began sourcing from Asia to undercut their competitors may have to work together to respond to the ethical concerns of their British customers. However, there are problems of confidentiality, as many companies are reluctant to let their competitors know where they buy their clothes from.
Around 30 per cent of clothes on sale in Britain come from China and Hong Kong, but a recent study by ACFTU revealed that more than half of those employed in foreign-owned (mainly Taiwanese and Korean) garment factories in Guangdong are paid less than the minimum wage and work seven days a week. Many of the workers are young women with little education who migrate to the province to escape from more impoverished rural areas.
"If they complain about wages or working conditions they risk the sack," says the Cafod report. "Working conditions are dangerous, with widespread exposure to toxic chemicals, fire hazards and industrial accidents. Many companies impose body searches on their employees, ban them from going to the toilet or drinking water and carry out ritual humiliation for minor misdemeanors."
The ETI admits it may take several years before the monitoring system is in place which will prevent such abuses. It expects the eventual solution to involve a combination of social audits carried out by professional monitoring consultancies and input from specially trained grassroots workers who will have the confidence of the workforce.
"The next issue is how we can enable companies to improve working conditions and whether the suppliers or the retailers will pay for this," said Mr Wells.
The Cafod report criticised several of Britain's top seven retailers for the "major gaps" that exist in their codes of conduct. Storehouse - which encompasses Mothercare and BhS - River Island, and Marks & Spencer have yet to acknowledge a universal right to join a union, although all three groups are now reviewing their codes for foreign manufacturers. Cafod also points out "disturbing weaknesses" in the C&A code over working hours.
Next introduced a new code this year, which it plans to review on an annual basis, but Cafod criticises the lack of independent checks in its monitoring procedure which consists of visits by Next quality and control specialists and self-certification by suppliers.
The report highlights the experiences of two workers who have yet to benefit from the initiatives taken by Western retailers.
Dani, an Indonesian worker, earns 35p a day working in a factory which, he claims, makes clothes for Gap. It is just enough to feed his small family on watery soup and house them in a two-room shack.
Minara Begum, a young Bangladeshi woman, was slashed with razors when she spoke out after union leaders were beaten up at the clothing factory where she worked. The union had been in dispute with the factory management since it recruited the 30 per cent of workers necessary for legal recognition.Reuse content