UK high-street supermarket clothes made in factories where workers are exploited, investigation says

Marks & Spencer and other high-street supermarket clothes were made in factories in India where workers faced exploitative conditions, an investigation has claimed, prompting the companies to launch investigations.

A probe by the BBC alleged factories supplying the popular retailer, as well as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and the fashion company Ralph Lauren, saw workers endure conditions that would be deemed unacceptable for UK workers.

Among the claims were that workers were not given toilet breaks or allowed to drink water in shifts and that managers would blow whistles behind workers to drive them back to work from short lunch breaks.

Other employees at the unnamed garment factories in south India told the corporation they were forced to work overtime and not allowed to leave until additional work was finished.

One factory worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “They’ve increased our workload. We’re forced to stay late to finish it – or they yell at us and threaten to fire us. We’re scared as we don’t want to lose our jobs.”

Following the investigation, Marks & Spencer said it had conducted unannounced audits to inspect conditions in the factories and said it found “absolutely no evidence” that workers were being denied access to basic facilities.

However, it said it did identify some overtime practices "that were not acceptable".

A spokesman for the Marks & Spencer said: “As a responsible retailer, we have a duty of care to protect the livelihoods of the people that work in our supply chain. 

“As a result, we have worked collaboratively with other brands using the site to put in place a robust remediation plan and will be undertaking regular unannounced audits to ensure its implementation.

"The site supplies less than 1 per cent of our homeware range and we will keep our position under review.”

Sainsbury’s said it was “shocked” and “deeply concerned” by the allegations, and had launched its own investigation, as well as working with the charity ActionAid to implement a "full remediation plan".

Tesco said it was "deeply troubled" by the investigation and said it was implementing measures including prohibiting excessive overtime and strengthening grievance procedures.

Meanwhile, Ralph Lauren said it had begun "auditing the factory and will take appropriate actions to ensure workers are treated and compensated fairly".  

Following the accusations, the charity ActionAid said a recent survey it had conducted in southern India had found almost 70 per cent of garment workers were paid less than £50 a month – levels it described as “shockingly low”.

Esther Mariaselvam, associate director at ActionAid’s office in Chennai, India said: “The reality is that this is just a snapshot of what millions of women are forced to endure in supply chains across the world but we hope that hearing from garment workers – who have bravely spoken out about their experiences – will lead to real change on the ground.” 

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