M&S, for years an icon of the British high street, has been the centre of several sweatshop scandals in the last few years. But what were these accusations, and have they improved?
In 2016, reporters in Turkey allegedly discovered Syrian refugees working for below minimum wage in factories producing M&S clothes. According to a 2016 BBC Panorama documentary looking at sweatshop scandals, factories in Turkey producing clothes for a variety of UK brands including M&S were exploiting Syrian refugees.
This was not the first time M&S was at the receiving end of such an accusation. In 1999, they faced accusations of using Indonesian children to produce clothes. Children allegedly earnt just 50p for 10 hour working days in factories around Jakarta. Then, M&S denied any involvement, claiming a lack of evidence it was buying from such factories.
In 2010, this time in India, they were in trouble again. The accusation was that workers hired through middlemen received as little as 26p an hour in their factories, while Glass Clothing tailors are paid at least 2x the national minimum wage. This time, M&S had to admit that the use of overtime had been ‘excessive’, but promised to deal with it.
According to the Telegraph, in 2016 the company was employing workers as young as 15 for 12 hour days ironing garments. The fact that these workers were refugees only worsened the situation. According to one refugee – “If anything happens to a Syrian, they will throw him away like a piece of cloth.”
The refugees apparently received far lower than the Turkish minimum wage, paid to them in cash by a middleman.
“We take these allegations very seriously, and if we find that the integrity of the brand has been brought into disrepute we will deal with it,” – The Guardian, 1999
“Excessive overtime and not paying workers the correct overtime rate can also be an issue in Gurgaon. This is one of the reasons we have a large team on the ground in Delhi and among the strictest ethical standards in the world .” – The Guardian, 2010
“Ethical trading is fundamental to M&S. All of our suppliers are contractually required to comply with our Global Sourcing Principles, which cover what we expect and require of them and their treatment of workers.” – Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, 2016
Again and again, the company has issued statements such as these. They always claim to hold ethical trading as the highest priority. However, the evidence seemed to contradict their claims. In 2016, they promised a serious effort to improve, but it would remain to be seen if their actions mirrored their words.
Have They Changed?
Well, sort of. As recently as January 2019, M&S was at the centre of yet another sweatshop scandal. This time, the location was Bangladesh. Other aspects of the story were depressingly similar.
According to the Guardian, M&S, Mothercare and Tesco were using the factory to produce Spice Girls T-shirts for a Comic Relief fundraiser. Allegedly, mainly female workers receive just 35p an hour. Ironically, the campaign’s intention was to raise awareness of how women earn less than men.
Employers at the Interstoff Factory in Gazipur also allegedly verbally abused the machinists. Some claimed they were called “daughters of prostitutes” if they failed to meet requirements they called “impossible”.
Allegedly, women had to work even if unwell or pregnant. Fainting in summer was common. Overcrowding was a problem and shifts could be up to 16 hours long. Workers had the target of sewing 2,000 garments a day, but it took over a week to earn enough to purchase just one, priced at £19.40.
M&S claimed they would investigate the allegations but Interstoff flat out denied them. M&S promised a compliance manager would visit the factory as soon as possible, and that they had already worked with the factory on projects dealing with gender equality and healthcare.
Plan A – An Answer
This being the fourth of the sweatshop scandals M&S has been involved in, it seems they are in dire need of improvement of factory standards. Plan A (2007), a sustainability measure, is the company’s answer. Plan A 2025 is the update from 2017, in which they introduced a greater focus on human rights and transparency.
The Corporate Human Rights Benchmark declared them the best Food & Apparel Brand in their 2017 report. According to their internal 2019 Plan A performance update, M&S are ‘on target’ with their transparency goals.
However, although the CHRB placed them at the top, they were only in the 60-69% band for human rights standards. The 2019 sweatshop scandal also casts a shadow over the company’s achievements and underlines the continuing need for improvement.