BANGLADESHI workers whose factories were recently exposed as sweatshops where big brands get their clothes made spoke for the first time last night.
They told of earning as little as 0.06c-an-HOUR and how they suffer regular beatings at the hands of their bosses.
What they make is sold in chain stores like Primark/Penneys, Asda and Tesco at bargain basement prices.
Nahinda – whose name has been changed to protect her identity – is one of the slum workers who earns in a month a few pounds more than the cost of a Primark sweater.
Speaking through an interpreter, she said: “People in the west want cheap clothes but they should also realise that they are so cheap because people like me work for a pittance.”
She works in a factory in the country’s capital Dhaka which employs more than 2,500 other workers.
It is run under a Dickensian regime where bosses will whip workers for something as minor as turning up five minutes late for work.
When the pretty 23-year-old clocks off at the end of her 12-14 hour shifts at her factory, she comes back to a rusting and leaking corrugated iron shack.
Although it’s what she calls home, the 16ft by 16ft room – that is used as an all-in-one bedroom, kitchen and living room – she shares with four others is all she can afford on the paltry £12-a-month wages she earns from the factory where she works.
And as well as meagre pay herself and fellow factory worker Shahana receive, she also has little or no rights.
In the 13 months she has worked at her factory – where union membership is banned and workers found to be members of any kind of employee association sacked on the spot – Nahinda has never once seen a contract of employment.
As with other workers like her, the overtime the 23-year-old – who is regularly forced to work seven days-a-week – does is not an option.
It is mandatory, often unpaid and she faces the sack if she refuses to do it.
Indeed, not only would she lose her job if her bosses discovered she was talking to a reporter, but she can be sacked – or beaten – for even being five minutes late or for missing a single stitch on a clothes label.
Indeed, any form of insubordination is liable to result in the culprits being whipped or beaten.
Eve-teasing, which involves men making overtly sexually explicit remarks or gestures at women, is also a regular and humiliating occurrence.
This form of sexual violence is so insulting to women in the predominantly Muslim country that some victims have even committed suicide.
Nahinda said: “The conditions we work under are horrendous, but we have no choice but to accept them and get on with our work because we are so poor.
“We have no union, we have no rights and there is no employment contract.
“The factory deliberately hide their records for overtime so as to comply with the local labour laws and requirements laid down by foreign buyers.
“And although we get our regular pay each month, we have to wait months for the small amount of overtime money we are owed.”
She added: “If I work four hours overtime, I’ll be lucky if I get paid for one hour’s extra work.
“But I can’t complain because apart from losing my job, there is no official record of the exact hours I work.
“The factory just tells the foreign buyers from companies like Primark and Tesco and the local labour officials what they need to hear and then carries on doing what they do – which is exploiting us.
“We know we are being exploited but we need the work and are powerless to do anything. I hope your readers in Ireland realise the hardships behind some of the clothes they wear.
“I don’t think even the companies our products are sold by even know the extent to which we are exploited to make their clothes.
“I would be in a lot of trouble if they knew I was talking to a journalist.
“The factory managers know we can’t complain because if we do, they will just get somebody else in to do the work. We will be fired and find it very hard to get work in other factories because we would be labelled troublemakers.”
She added: “Whenever someone from Primark or Tesco comes round, our bosses warn us in advance.
“We are told that under no circumstances must we tell the foreign buyers what we earn, how many hours we work or anything else that might get the factory into trouble.
“Everything is all laid on for the buyers to give them the impression that everything is all above board.”
And as well as the precautions taken by unscrupulous factory owners, the Bangladeshi authorities themselves do their own bit to ensure that negative media exposure of the Dickensian conditions thousands of the country’s workers have to endure is kept to a minimum.
Entry into the country by journalists is severely restricted.
Penneys, the clothing empire which was set up by secretive Dubliner Arthur Ryan in 1969 and which has sales in Ireland of more than €430 million-a-year, prides itself as an ethical manufacturer.
It even trumpets its ethical credentials on its website.
A note on the site says the company – which joined the Ethical Trading Initiative in May 2006 – is “committed to monitoring and progressively improving working conditions” that supply its merchandise.
But one of its spokesmen admitted after the publication of charity War on Want’s recent report into sweatshops that “some factories are slipping through the net and not complying with the Ethical Trading Initiative”.
Simon McRae, War on Want’s senior campaigns manager, said last night: “Ethical codes are all well and good in principle.
“But much more needs to be done by the big chains because what is currently only a voluntary code for manufacturers can only work up to a point.
“It’s telling that of the three main low-end companies benefiting from cheap labour in Bangladesh as far as our survey into a collection of clothing factories, Penneys has yet to give us a response.
“ASDA admitted it knows how bad things are in the country and said it was involved in various initiatives to change the way the factories they use are run, and Tesco wrote us a letter.
“But we have heard nothing back from Penneys.
“These companies are effectively creating poverty by driving down wages so their goods can be sold as cheaply as possible.”
He added: “People have to wake up and realise that cheap clothing is very often made by people who work in unbearable conditions.
“It would be a very sad reflection on human nature if – at a time like Christmas – nobody cared enough about this whole issue to put some kind of pressure on high street companies to change the way they operate in Bangladesh.”