From Socialist Voice, January 2007

Not such good value

If you walk into the Penney’s (Primark), Tesco or ASDA shop in your nearest shopping centre or main street in Dublin, Belfast, Cork or any Irish city or town you will be dazzled by the range of clothing and other items available, and at very reasonable prices. You might even wonder how they could make them so cheaply.
      What lies behind the bright colours and the wide variety of items? Where are they made? What sort of conditions have the workers who make them? What is the reality behind the slick advertisements and the life-style images portrayed?
     Garment manufacturing is the main industry in Bangladesh. In 1970 there was only one garment factory in the country; by 1977 the number had risen to 8, but by 1984 it was 587. In 1998 the total was 2,650, and today it is 3,300, employing 1.6 million people (83 per cent of whom are women workers).
     76 per cent of Bangladeshi exports are garment-related goods, exported to the United States, Canada, and countries of the European Union and the Caribbean. Recently Bangladesh began small-scale exports to Japan, Australia, and some other countries. The main raw materials for these garments—mainly fabrics—are imported from other countries.
     In late 2006 the British campaigning organisation War on Want published a report on the working conditions, including wages, of the many thousands of workers in Bangladesh who work long hours in the factories where these clothes are produced. The conditions these workers experience are not unique but are mirrored in other underdeveloped countries, as well as in China and other Asian countries, by millions of workers.
     The report points out that many of these garment workers work between 60 and 90 hours per week. It quotes one worker, Lina, who at twenty-two years of age moved to the capital, Dhaka, as a skilled machinist, which puts her near the top of the skills pyramid. She makes clothing for Primark (called Penney’s in Ireland), ASDA (i.e. Wal-Mart) and Tesco and earns about £17 for a 60 to 90-hour working week. Wages in the Bangladeshi clothing industry were halved in the 1990s, making these workers the cheapest in the world. A significant number of workers earn 5 pence an hour for an 80-hour week.
     Sixty workers from six different garment factories in Bangladesh were interviewed. All six factories produce “significant amounts” of clothing for ASDA; four also produce for Tesco and three for Primark. All three of these giant retailers buy tens of millions of pounds’ worth of goods manufactured in Bangladesh every year. The managing director of Primark, Arthur Ryan, summed up its buying policy when he was approached by a factory owner with an item costing £5 that would retail at £10. Ryan is reported to have said that he was not interested unless he came back with a product that cost £3 and could retail at £7. “I don’t care how you go about it—just do it,” he said.
     ASDA, Tesco and Primark have all signed a common code of conduct, which states that workers will not be regularly required to work more than 48 hours per week and will be provided with at least one day off for every seven-day period on average. Overtime is to be voluntary and will not exceed twelve hours a week, will not be demanded regularly, and will always be paid at a higher rate.
     The investigation for this report showed that in reality working hours in factories supplying all three retailers far exceed this maximum. In all six factories most workers reported that they work from 12 to 16 hours per day and regularly work 80 hours a week. The minimum found was 10 hours per day, six days per week. Milly, sewing clothes for ASDA and Primark, works up to 16 hours each day. Abdul, who works in a factory supplying ASDA and Tesco, works 60 to 70 hours of overtime every month, while his colleague Rahimul works 90 to 100 hours. Ifat, whose factory supplies all three brands, worked an incredible 140 hours of overtime during August 2006.
     Workers are set demanding targets that must be filled before they can leave the factory. Overtime is compulsory, and many of these workers do not even receive the correct payment for the overtime they are forced to work.
     When workers work until 10 p.m., completing five hours of extra work, the official record book shows that they have worked only two extra hours. This serves multiple purposes, such as appearing to comply with local labour laws, satisfying foreign buyers about the legitimate use of overtime, and—most importantly—robbing the workers of their hard-earned wages.
     This super-exploitation of workers in cramped and overcrowded working conditions has led to a severe decline in health and safety, resulting between February and March 2006 in a number of factories collapsing or going on fire, with the death of hundreds of workers.

Anti-union strategies

Workers have courageously attempted to organise and join trade unions. In one case twenty-two union members at a factory supplying ASDA who demanded their overtime pay were beaten, fired, then imprisoned on trumped-up charges. The workers also claimed that the factory required nineteen-hour shifts, paid no overtime, and denied maternity leave and benefits.
     Wal-Mart in the United States has a union-bashing “rapid reaction” team, complete with its own aircraft. As a Wal-Mart spokesperson put it, “While unions may be appropriate for other companies, they have no place at Wal-Mart.”
     In February 2006 ASDA was fined £850,000 by an employment tribunal for attempting to induce employees to give up their right to collective bargaining. When Tesco advertised for people to manage its new American branch in May 2006 the job specification included “maintaining union-free status” and “union avoidance activities.” Tesco’s retail branch in Thailand, called Tesco Lotus, was unionised only after five years of operation, and since then the union has been under tremendous pressure.

Factory inspectors

These huge retail giants, and others, claim that the factories producing garments for them are regularly inspected, but the report shows how such inspections take place. “Workers get prior notice of social audits and are instructed to lie to the buyers’ representatives about their wages, working hours and other health and safety issues. Social auditors have interviewed only a handful of workers, but all these workers have been coached and intimidated by their managers to ensure they said the right things. As Amin reported, ‘During my interview with the audit team I had to lie as instructed by factory management.’”
     This is all for the sake of reassuring western consumers, rather than improving the working conditions of the workers. These inspectors are as useful as our own labour inspectors here in Ireland. A further indicator of how farcical the inspections are is that they do not inspect home workers or sub-contracted work-places.
     This is exploitation on a vast scale. The main beneficiaries are the global corporations that make vast profits. We as workers here in the developed countries benefit by cheap clothing, which takes the pressure off our own limited disposable income, perhaps allowing us the luxury of summer holidays or repayments on a new car, or the little extra for our SSIA savings.
     There is no such thing as a free lunch: someone else pays the price further down the food chain. That is the reality of the barbarism of capitalism and its divide-and-rule approach.

Some facts about these three companies

Tesco made a profit of £2.2 billion in 2005—with the highest rate of return coming from its Irish operations. Tesco PLC is one of the three biggest retailers in the world as it expands from its base in Britain. The group had annual sales in 2004/05 of £37.1 billion (€55.65 billion).
     Primark is a retail group that operates a total of 160 shops in Britain, Spain, and Ireland (where it trades under the Penney’s name). Primark employs more than 20,000 people. Primark Stores Ltd is a subsidiary of Associated British Foods, which is a “diversified” food, ingredients and retail group with global sales of £6 billion.
     Wal-Mart has 6,600 shops in thirteen countries and is the world’s largest retailer, with sales of $312 billion for the year ending January 2006. Wal-Mart operates in the North of Ireland as ASDA.

What can we do?

▪ Write to these corporate giants and ask for an explanation about the working conditions that workers have to endure in the factories that produce clothes for their retail outlets.
▪ Try to spend your money in shops that have a more ethical approach to the goods they sell.
▪ Get your union to contact the National Garment Workers’ Federation and the Bangladesh Agricultural Farm Labour Federation to show solidarity and to offer whatever material or moral support they may need to combat these deadly labour practices imposed on garment workers.

Tesco Ireland
Phone 1850 744844

PO Box 644
Dublin 1

Angela Spindler ASDA
Great Wilson Street
Leeds LS11 5AD
Phone 0044 113 2435435

National Garment Workers’ Federation
GPO Box No. 864
Dhaka 1000
Phone 00 880 19 340268
Fax: 00 880 29 562562

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