Supermarkets and high street stores are selling cut-price clothing at the expense of low-paid overseas workers who are being exploited and denied their basic labour rights, a report has found.
Well-known stores such as TopShop, Matalan and Asda were failing to prevent human rights abuses and "sweatshop" conditions in their suppliers' factories.
Six years after the campaign group Labour Behind the Label (LBL) brought out its first damning report on sweatshop conditions, a new investigation has found that many British brands have failed to clean up their act.
The lobby group accused some companies of "misleading" customers by publishing ethical codes of conduct that were not met throughout supply chains.
Workers, mainly women, in countries such as China, Bangladesh, Burma and Cambodia were being forced to work excessive hours, refused access to trade union rights and were beaten if they protested according to LBL.
Ruth Rosselson, of thecampaign group Ethical Consumer, said: "It is no surprise that cheap fashion retailers rely on exploiting their workers to get by.
"Their responses to consumers and campaigners show a clear lack of understanding of the systematic exploitation at the heart of the clothing industry.
"Brands such as Asda claim to be taking steps at the same time as pushing down prices paid to suppliers so that they can sell trousers for £3."
The report assessed 37 British high street names on three criteria; their commitment to the principle of a "living wage" for workers, policies to ensure rights to union membership and adequate auditing of their supply chains.
Clothing prices have fallen by one-third in the past decade, partly because of the ending of the Multi-Fibre Agreement (MFA) at the beginning of 2005, which had protected garment manufacturing industries in countries such as India and Bangladesh. The subsequent relocation of factories to China has driven down wage and labour costs.
The competition has also caused wages in Bangladesh to halve over the past 10 years. Workers in garment factories there are paid as little as £7 a month, when an adequate "living wage" is estimated at £30 a month. In China, LBL investigators found a 19-year-old migrant worker in a garment factory who was earning £24 a month less than the Chinese minimum wage. She had only one day off every four weeks.
The LBL report said that out of 37 British companies they contacted, only 16 accepted the principle that workers in their supplying factories should be paid a "living wage".
LBL defines a living wage as one which, before overtime, not only provides for the basic needs of workers and their families, but allows them to participate fully in society.
The Arcadia group, which owns TopShop, Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge, dismissed the idea of paying overseas employees a living wage as " aspirational" while H&M made no reference to the principle.
In addition, many famous high street names were ignoring labour abuses by their suppliers. Last year a Cambodian factory supplying clothes to Arcadia, Next and Asda summarily sacked 19 union leaders and 120 union members who had protested about low wages and replaced them with non-union workers. The British brands did not intervene.
Dragging their feet
LBL said Matalan "has no serious engagement with workers' rights at all".
Matalan said: "The company... has developed a socially responsible trading policy based on the internationally accepted standards set out in the Ethical Trading Initiatives Base Code of Labour Standards."
Accused by LBL of a "lack of engagement" and dragging its feet on workers' rights.
Not committed to a "living wage" and admits that rather than inspecting factories it merely meets suppliers. Laura Ashley did not respond to a request for a comment.
LBL said: "There are serious reasons to question whether Primark will be prepared to make the changes to its... fashion business model that may be required to really ensure workers are paid a living wage."
A spokesman said: "In May... we have signed up to the Ethical Trading Initiative and we are in the process of educating everyone in the company about those standards."
The company described the principle of a "living wage" for workers as "aspirational". It failed to intervene last year when workers at a Cambodian factory were persecuted for trying to form a union.
A spokesman for TopShop said: "TopShop have signed off on a significant programme that will impact positively on our entire supply chain."
Asda and its parent company, WalMart, are notoriously anti-union. Workers at a factory in Bangladesh have been warned that anyone who tries to form a trade union will be handed over to the police. The company said: "We absolutely refute the assertion that we are getting away with doing very little." It said that Asda was able to price jeans at £3 because it bought fabrics in huge quantities and did not use "flashy" advertising.Reuse content