Spice Girls probe charity T-shirts over 'abuse' in Bangladesh

Tesco, Mothercare and M&S use same factory paying workers 35p an hour

British pop band the Spice Girls said they will fund an investigation into a Bangladesh factory over its treatment of women who make T-shirts for a charity campaign backing equality.

Factory workers making the tops in Gazipur, Bangladesh, earned as little as 35 pence (45 cents) an hour, were forced to work up to 16 hours a day and suffered insults and harassment, according to an investigation by the Guardian.

The T-shirts, which were commissioned by the Spice Girls and retail for about £20(€22.69) , aim to raise money for a campaign by British charity Comic Relief championing gender justice.

The group topped charts in the 1990s with a “girl power” mantra that appealed strongly to young women, selling the idea that girls from ordinary backgrounds could make it big.


The slogan “#IWannaBeASpiceGirl” appears on the front of the tops, while the phrase “gender justice” is printed on the back.

A spokeswoman for the Spice Girls - who announced in November that they would reunite for a tour of Britain this year - said they were “deeply shocked and appalled by the claims”.

“The girls will personally fund an independent investigation into the working conditions of this factory,” the spokeswoman said. “Equality and the movement of people power has always been at the heart of the band.”

Now it has emerged that Interstoff Apparels, which makes millions of pounds in profits and is co-owned by a Bangladeshi government minister, also produces garments for major British retailers.

Tesco and M&S launched investigations after the revelations, while Mothercare, which sells clothing for babies, children and expectant mothers, said it would be reviewing the findings. Tesco and M&S launched investigations after the revelations, while Mothercare, which sells clothing for babies, children and expectant mothers, said it would be reviewing the findings.


Comic Relief said both the charity and the band had carried out ethical sourcing checks on the online retailer commissioned to make the T-shirts, Represent, but that it had subsequently changed manufacturer without their knowledge.

Represent could not be reached for comment, but Comic Relief said the retailer had taken full responsibility for its choice of supplier, and that it would refund customers on request.

Workers making the T-shirts told the Guardian they were forced to do overtime, made to work despite poor health, and verbally abused with insults such as "daughter of a prostitute".

Comic Relief said it was “shocked and concerned” and both the charity and Spice Girls had checked the ethical sourcing credentials of the online retailer commissioned by the band to make the T-shirts, but it had subsequently changed manufacturer without their knowledge.

Labour’s Mary Creagh said the news was a “wake-up call” and urged retailers to do more to ensure workers producing clothes for them are not abused.

The MP, who chairs the environmental audit committee, which has been investigating the garment industry, said: “There is no reason for any British retailer to tolerate these abuses in the labour supply chain.

“I remarked in one of our inquiries that large supermarkets can tell me more about the lives of the animals that we are eating than about the people who make our clothes.

“There is a bitter irony that a band founded on girl power makes a T-shirt promoting gender equality through exploiting the rights of women and girls with poverty wages and harsh working conditions. The band should have double- and triple-checked with their supplier.”

But the Labour MP Rushanara Ali, who is the British government’s trade envoy to Bangladesh, called on the band do more to help impoverished Bangladeshi garment workers and “learn from this terrible mistake”.

She said: “I think it’s utterly shocking that the due diligence hasn’t been done successfully enough to prevent the sale and purchase of these goods when people are being paid so badly and treated so appallingly.

"Although there has been some improvement in the country since the Rana Plaza, where over 1,100 people lost their lives, what's needed is celebrities like the Spice Girls to get behind campaigns to improve labour standards, pay and conditions for garment workers in Bangladesh and other countries in the developing world."

Interstoff Apparels has said the Guardian's findings would be investigated but were "simply not true".

M&S confirmed the company has been working with Interstoff for 13 years. A spokesman added: “We will be investigating this incident. We take any allegation against factories we work with extremely seriously and we have already arranged for a compliance manager to visit as soon as possible.

“In addition to there being regular M&S presence at the factory, we work with the factory on a number of programmes including gender equality and healthcare projects.”

Tesco said it was investigating. Mothercare said it took staff welfare “very seriously”, adding that the retailer “works in close dialogue with all factories” and would be reviewing the information.

A spokesman added: “Mothercare has a code of practice, based on the Ethical Trading Initiative code, which outlines the labour standards expected at all factories, which forms part of our conditions of trade.

“Before production is approved, all factories must provide an independent factory ethical audit from a shortlist of providers, to demonstrate that they comply with our code of practice.

“These audits are then reviewed and graded. Dependent on the findings, the factory is approved for production and a corrective action plan is issued, detailing any areas where the factory needs to improve. Factories found to have issues in the audit are not approved for production.

“Mothercare requires that once a factory is approved for production, an independent ethical audit is then renewed on an annual basis to ensure continued adherence with the code.”

Low wages and trade deals with Western countries have turned Bangladesh’s garment sector into a $30 billion industry accounting for 80 per cent of the country’s exports.

Bangladesh has been hit by violent demonstrations in recent weeks after thousands of workers took to the streets demanding better pay. Garment owners agreed to raise wages last week but many workers rejected the pay hike and launched fresh protests.

From clothes and cosmetics to shrimp and smartphones, major brands face rising regulatory and consumer pressure to ensure their supply chains are free of labour abuses as the world looks to meet a United Nations goal of ending modern slavery by 2030.

Yet consumer trust seems to be at an all-time low, according to Joanna Ewart-James of the anti-slavery group Freedom United, who highlighted the irony of a T-shirt intended to back gender equality being produced by women in a exploitative workplace. "All buyers - charities as well as companies - must take contractual responsibility for ensuring decent working conditions in their supply chain." – Thomson Reuters Foundation and the Guardian