The Fawcett Society, which lobbies for greater gender equality, has launched an urgent investigation into claims that its latest campaign used T-shirts made by women in a Mauritius factory reportedly paid as little as 62p an hour.
The campaign group’s “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirts were launched last week through branches of the fashion retailer Whistles and were worn by Labour leader Ed Miliband and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg as well as the actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne and the musician Tinie Tempah. Harriet Harman, Labour’s deputy leader and former minister for women, wore one in the House of Commons.
But the owner of the factory who made the garments admitted to the Mail on Sunday that the labourers earned 6,000 rupees a month – equivalent to £120 – and showed reporters spartan accommodation where they sleep up to 15 to a room on bunk beds.
The paper said that one worker told them: “How can this T-shirt be a symbol of feminism when we do not see ourselves as feminists? We see ourselves as trapped.”
The Fawcett Society has now issued an apology “to all those concerned who may have experienced adverse conditions” and promised to pull the £45 tops from sale if “concrete and verifiable evidence of mistreatment of the garment producers emerges”.
There is no suggestion that any law has been broken, but the claims will be particularly embarrassing for equality campaigners because low pay and poor conditions in the garment industry in south Asia disproportionately affect women.
On Sunday Jim Murphy MP, a candidate for the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party, attacked the charity’s lack of research.
“I don’t blame Harriet or any of the other politicians,” he said. “We have to look at how it happened. Those folk who seek to involve high-profile politicians in these entirely sensible sorts of photo opportunities have got to do a degree of due diligence, so they don’t inadvertently lead to this sort of controversy that does nothing to help the initial cause.”
The workers’ wages appear to be higher than the national minimum wage for unskilled workers in Mauritius, but are lower than the minimum poverty income level as set out by the Indian Ocean country’s National Empowerment Foundation.
Compagnie Mauricienne de Textile (CMT), which made the fundraising T-shirts, has a turnover of £125m and employs 10,000 workers.
The Fawcett Society had partnered with Whistles and Elle magazine on the campaign and said it had been assured the garments would be made ethically in the UK. Only when they received samples in early October did they see they had been made in Mauritius.
“We have been very disappointed to hear the allegations that conditions in the Mauritius factory may not adhere to the ethical standards that we, as the Fawcett Society, would require of any product that bears our name,” said Eva Neitzert, deputy chief executive. “As a charity that campaigns on issues of women’s economic equality, we take these allegations extremely seriously and will do our utmost to investigate them … we remain confident that we took every practicable and reasonable step to ensure that the range would be ethically produced and await a fuller understanding of the circumstances under which the garments were produced.”
When the Fawcett Society sought reassurance about standards at the factory, Whistles emailed back to say CMT is “a fully audited, socially and ethical compliant factory” and cited accreditations relating to the provenance and content of materials. Whistles also said it had full audit reports from the factory, using the industry-wide Sedex system, which should have included detail of wages earned by employees in the factory. Whistles last night declined to comment on whether it knew the women’s wages.
The Sedex audit in principle checks whether “wages and benefits paid for a standard working week meet, at a minimum, national legal standards”. It demands that “wages should always be enough to meet basic needs and to provide some discretionary income”. The same standards are demanded by the global Ethical Trading Initiative whose published list of members include Gap, Marks and Spencer, Debenhams, H&M, Primark, Jack Wills and Boden, but not Whistles.
In a statement, Whistles said: “We place a high priority on environmental, social and ethical issues. The allegations regarding the production of T-shirts in the CMT factory in Mauritius are extremely serious and we are investigating them as a matter of urgency … We carry out regular audits of our suppliers in line with our high corporate and social responsibility standards.”
It said CMT has “world class policies for sustainable development, social, ethical and environmental compliance.”
“This highlights that we still have poor conditions in supply chains that are mainly about women’s work,” said Clare Lissaman, an ethical trade consultant in the fashion industry. “The really big challenge for people managing supply chains is whether [the amount paid to workers] is enough for a living wage. This isn’t going away and we are deluding ourselves if we think that retailers here aren’t taking advantage of the rules the countries around the world make.”
She said that the wages and conditions being experienced by the Mauritian workers were “standard in the industry but the standard is not good enough”.
Paul Collins, spokesman for War on Want, said: “What is changing is that companies are becoming smarter about making ethical claims to reassure the public but the reality is that if you are a woman working in a garment factory in a developing country you are not going to be earning a living wage and there is no evidence that is changing. The auditing system has not solved the problem. That is why we say it is only British government regulation that can force the companies to behave in an ethical way and live up to their ethical claims.”
The Fawcett Society was originally very cautious about the fundraising scheme and “there were long conversations about the risks of working with a women’s magazine, with the narrow beauty ideals and aspirational lifestyle that they present”, Ava Lee, its policy and campaigns officer, wrote in a blog before the campaign launched.
“The decision to partner with a fashion magazine and high street store wasn’t an easy one,” Lee wrote. “The partnership took us out of our comfort zone. Fashion and feminism aren’t the most straight forward of bed fellows … After much hard thought we came to the conclusion that while we understand and agree with many of the valid criticisms that certain feminists will have of what fashion magazines reflect and perpetuate, it was an opportunity that we, as a small campaigning organisation, wanted to grasp.”