UK supermarkets' ethical clothing standards 'a sham'

Overseas workers supplying major chains say they are forced to lie to auditors about pay and conditions
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The Independent Online

British supermarket claims that their cut-price clothing is made under ethical standards have been called into question by an investigation revealing serious and widespread abuses in factories that make the bargain items.

Tailors and machine operators making cheap clothing for Tesco and Asda say they are forced to lie to company auditors about working hours and pay and conditions or risk being sacked, according to a report to be published on Tuesday.

Researchers from the Clean Clothes Campaign claim the supermarkets' workplace standards auditors often know they are being hoodwinked, but turn a blind eye to endorse the factory as compliant with the company's code of conduct.

The report – Cashing In – casts doubt on the value of the voluntary codes, hailed by the retail giants as evidence of their commitment to ethical trading. Its authors say the codes will make little difference to impoverished workers unless supermarkets reconsider their demands for low prices and quick turnarounds from manufacturers.

The findings are based on extensive interviews with garment workers, managers and industry insiders, and come less than a month after Tesco cut prices on 700 clothing items as part of a price war.

Sam Maher, who represents the campaign in the UK, said: "Giant retailers like Tesco and Asda have huge buying power. They could use this to help lead the way on improving labour conditions in the industry, but instead they use it to drive down prices, shorten production times and push all the risk on to suppliers and ultimately the workers. Engaging in a clothing price war at a time when workers are struggling just to survive only intensifies the industry's race to the bottom on working conditions."

Researchers interviewed 440 workers from 30 factories across Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and Thailand. All were making clothes for one or more of the five supermarket giants: Walmart [Asda], Tesco, Lidl, Aldi and Carrefour. The names of the factories and workers are withheld because interviewees feared for their jobs.

The vast majority said overtime was compulsory on most days. Yet few of these extra hours were recorded on the timesheets which are inspected by auditors. Only a minority were paid fully for the extra hours they worked. Days off were rare and wages are often deducted if leave is taken.

The supermarkets all have their own codes of conduct which set out expected standards and working conditions. Tesco and Asda are also aligned to the Ethical Trading Initiative.

But the majority of audits to check code compliance are pre-arranged. It was claimed repeatedly that factories are cleaned, childcare centres opened and underage workers sent home on days when auditors or buyers visit. Workers said they are forced to rehearse what to tell auditors and are warned against revealing the truth about pay and conditions. Few of those interviewed knew anything about the Codes of Conduct.

A female Indian tailor from Delhi said: "If foreign people [inspectors[ come, they tell lies to them. They are also asking us to tell lies to them. We have to tell lies to retain our work. Otherwise they will send us out."

Kharshed Alam, a researcher in Bangladesh, said: "All the auditors I have talked to know about these tricks with the timesheets and rehearsed answers; it is an open secret. But they choose to depend on official documents and to believe what the workers say in front of their bosses so they can tick the boxes on the checklist."

Asda said it took the allegations seriously but insisted that its audit procedures are robust, and that its code of conduct and a helpline number are always displayed in the local language.

Leah Watson, from George at Asda, said: "We never walk away from problems; we work closely with factory owners to resolve any issues that arise."

A Tesco spokesman said: "Providing great value prices comes through efficiencies in production – not by lowering standards in our supply chain. We have in place a rigorous programme of independent audits of our suppliers' factories, identifying problems and leading to improvements."