An investigation by The Guardian newspaper led to the publication of two articles on 20 January 2019 that claimed workers at the Interstoff Apparels factory in Bangladesh producing T-shirts for Stanley/Stella were paid 35p an hour and subject to verbal abuse and forced overtime. The T-shirts were produced for the Spice Girls by US crowdselling merchandise platform Represent and featured the slogan, #IWannaBeASpiceGirl. They were sold for £19.40, with £11.60 from each T-shirt sold given to Comic Relief’s fund to help “champion equality for women”.
A second article on 22 January said that at Dird, another Bangladeshi factory used by the brand, a worker was beaten up and told she would be killed if she protested against her severance pay being taken from her. She was later compensated and the HR manager involved in the incidence was sacked.
Speaking to Images, Stanley/Stella’s sustainability manager, Bruno Van Sieleghem, is direct in his support of Interstoff, calling it “a benchmark in Bangladesh”. He says, “They are doing a great job and I will stick behind them and defend them as much as I can.”
His confidence in the factory, the owner of which is reported as saying he will investigate the findings but that they are “simply not true”, is based on a number of points: its harassment and abuse procedures, its employee benefits, the Fair Wear Foundation audit (Stanley/Stella is a FWF member), the regular presence of a Stanley/Stella employee at the factory to oversee production and social compliance, and Bruno’s own four visits to the factory in the past two and a half years.
There is, he explains, a free hotline for staff to report any problems, and in three of the four Bangladeshi factories used by the brand, there are anti-harassment committees; Interstoff is setting one up this year. Interstoff says it has a zero tolerance policy on harassment and abuse; a problem at the factory in September was resolved in 24 hours.
The incident at the Dird factory, which Bruno doesn’t dispute, shows that the procedures work, he says. “What’s the option? Leave the company and let them do that again, or say to the management, ‘If you want to keep working with us then this cannot happen, never again. And this guy who was responsible for that, he should leave the company tomorrow, and then we can keep on working with you.’ We think that this is a mature, responsible and good way of working and trying to improve conditions in this country.” He points out that in any company, especially one with thousands of employees, problems and issues will always arise and will need to be resolved.
Stanley/Stella has an employee at Interstoff nearly every day when its garments are being made, overseeing not only the production quality but also the social compliance. A weekly report is filed that ranges from ‘are the toilets clean?’ to ‘were people able to leave at five when it’s normal to leave?’.
All four of the Bangladeshi factories offer additional benefits, says Bruno, ranging from attendance and performance bonuses to free childcare and free school fees for children. “It’s really one of the best factories we know,” he says, adding that the factory also employs at least 80 people with disabilities.
The issue of wages is complicated, adds Bruno. The government in Bangladesh raised the minimum wage in December, but it is still seen by organisations such as the Asia Floor Wage Alliance as being well below the living wage. There is little the brand can achieve on increasing wages by itself – all the brands along with NGOs and unions need to be directly discussing pay levels with the government if change is to be made, Bruno explains. “We hope that… progressively, Bangladesh will pay more and closer to what we know living wage is.”
When asked why Stanley/Stella doesn’t insist that the people making its clothes are paid more, he says the reality is that this would lead to problems in the factory – there are more than 4,000 people working there, and everyone would want to work for the one “small, Belgian brand” that pays more. “The factory would never be able to manage this,” he says.
The obvious question is, why does Stanley/Stella stay in Bangladesh, given the brand’s commitment to create clothes that are “made in a more humane, ethical and ecological way”? “They are experienced, they have lots of skill, a lot of capabilities. And because if we leave Bangladesh, it will be worse for all these people,” Bruno says. “Eighty percent of the exports of Bangladesh are [from the] garment industry. Companies like ours, brands like ours, we need to stay there to help these people to go further in terms of social compliance.”
Below are full statements from Stanley/Stella, Interstoff and Dird:
Stanley/Stella is shocked by the article of The Guardian. 18.1.21.
Stanley/Stella has been mentioned in an article published by The GuardianUK questioning working conditions in Bangladesh factories.
Details of the Investigation
This investigation was initiated after the Spice Girls sold charity t-shirts to protest against gender discrimination. These t-shirts were Stanley/Stella and transparently made in Bangladesh. The Guardian reveals that workers in Bangladesh complained about working conditions, verbal abuse, excessive overtime, and low wages.
Stanley/Stella takes any complaints very seriously and will investigate all of them. If they are found to be as reported in the article, we will immediately stop collaborating with this factory. However, we would like to emphasize that our last Social Audit, objectively and independently conducted by the International Fair Wear Foundation in December 2018, did not report any harassment or verbal abuses issues in this source factory.
Fair Wear Foundation Audit
The on-site audit was preceded, as is FWF’s standard practice, with some 30 off-site interviews with workers. These interviews were conducted on an individual basis and without the knowledge of the factory management, allowing for workers to provide information about the working conditions freely and in full anonymity. It is confirmed that the factory, indeed, does have some excessive working hours but it is voluntary by policy and nobody claimed that they are forced to do the overtime work. Similarly, the off-site interviews and on-site audit did not confirm the allegations of harassment in the factory.
Factory Management strongly denies most of these allegations and invites Simon Murphy, The Guardian journalist, to visit Bangladesh and experience the situation in real life.
We Remain Committed to Improving Bangladesh
Stanley/Stella is proud to work with the best factories in Bangladesh and to help the country and workers access better conditions. We (along with Fair Wear Foundation) never claim that everything is perfect, but we push for daily progress and go beyond legal requirements (for wages and overtime specifically). At the end of last year, wages for workers in Bangladesh increased by 51% for those on the lowest income band. This is still below living wage and Stanley/Stella will always support any initiative going towards a fair wage for all workers.
Our company was also awarded by Fair Wear Foundation for its best practices and the introduction of Anti-harassment committes. This means an anonymous hotline is available to report potential worker complaints and we are committed to actively and immediately solving all issues. We suggested Simon Murphy to communicate this hotline number to the workers he met.
We also are one of the few companies to be fully transparent about our factories identities and locations. Stanley/Stella wants to ensure our community that we are fully committed to improving the workers’ conditions wherever we are producing in the world.
Fair Wear Foundation Statement
“Stanley/Stella has been one of the pioneers in implementing the FWF Workplace Education Program Violence and Harassment Prevention Program at their suppliers in Bangladesh.
The program, which pilots new workplace procedures, aims to prevent and respond to forms of workplace violence, including verbal and physical abuse, sexual harassment, forced labour and sexual assault. This occurs through the establishment of Anti-Harassment Committes in garment factories. An effective workplace harassment system includes a company policy, a grievance procedure, the support of top management and the involvement of workers through the development of a workplace anti-harassment commit”.
Interstoff Factory Management Statement
Thank you for your mail. These are very strong allegations which we can say with confidence are simply not true, and will be fully investigated. ( Except for the wages which are based on local law increased by factory’s incentives policy) (……..)
Stanley Stella is indeed one of our valued customers, we produce blank t-shirts for them, they themselves are fully transparent and extremely ethical and ensures factory’s they work with shares the same ethos.
We believe we are also a factory who share the same responsibility to our colleagues and to our community. (…..)
I welcome you to our factory to look at our humble efforts. Please let me know when you are willing to travel to Bangladesh.
Interstoff, from a humble beginning in 2000, have grown to a reasonable size because of our people. We value this and do try a build a responsible working environment. I would once again request if possible to give us bit more specifics with proof of the harassment incident, we will if proven will take due action immediately.”
For further information, please contact Bruno Vansieleghem, sustainability manager, at: email@example.com
The Guardianonline articles, Sunday 20th January 2019
a. Inhuman conditions’: life in factory Making Spice Girl T-Shirts
b. Revealed: Spice Girls T-Shirts made in factory paying staff 35p an hour.
Breaching of accuracy code.
- The articles states Interstoff exported 4.3 M GBP in 2014-15 and made a 2 M GBP pre-tax profit i.e 46.51%. The fact is that Interstoff exported Tk 4684.8 (GBP 42.6) Million and earned Tk 216.6 (GBP 1.96) Million which is 4.62%.
- The article states that the government have increased the minimum wage to Tk 8000 and that this is the first rise in 5 years, whereas the pay rise also includes a minimum annual increase of 5% of basic salary in the last 5 years.
The article does not reflect true Interstoff’s worker wages, which is as per the following, paid for Dec’2018:
|Min Wages||Interstoff Avg Wages||Percentage of worker|
The workers receive 2 festival and attendance bonuses, provident fund, production incentives, earned leave encashment, service benefits etc.
- The articles states that production managers use abusive language whereas Interstoff has a zero tolerance policy on harassment and abuse. Channels for workers to report their complaints include open door policy, complain/suggestion box, hotlines numbers as well as customer’s toll free helpline and protector lines. All complaints are addressed with full confidentiality and with utmost priority. Interstoff is also audited by independent auditors, who conduct confidential personal interviews with workers.
The workers have 24 elected representatives in the 30-member participation committee to make them aware and voice worker issues. The recent election was done under the guidance and supervision of ETI, UK.
- The article states the workers are forced to work overtime whereas all the workers are free to leave after regular working hours, as clearly stated in the worker’s hand book, printed posters and counselling. The article states that worker and their family education has been affected due to working extra hours. Interstoff workers have availed paid holidays due to exams or education and encourages workers’ children’s education by providing financial awards and certifications.
- The articles states that pregnant workers are ill-treated and forced to work extra hours whereas Interstoff has initiatives for pregnant workers’ welfare well and above the legal requirements. Once a worker registers herself as pregnant in factory medical centre (male and female doctors), her work load is reviewed and reduced as per the guidance of the doctors and closely monitored by welfare officers. They also receive monthly medical check- up, hygiene and awareness sessions by trained doctors, free first ultra-sonogram, related general medicines, hospitalization cost through health insurance coverage.
- The article states that workers are given targets impossible to achieve whereas in 2018, 70% plus of Interstoff workers achieved and received performance incentives in different periods. In Dec’2018, 86% of sewing operators received performance incentives.
Dird’s response to The Guardian
Dear Mr Murphy,
Please find our response below.
“Dird Composite Textiles Ltd (DCTL) operates with the highest regard for ethical and moral standards. In 2009 we were awarded best worker friendly factory in Bangladesh. We are compliant with the requirements of SEDEX, BSCI, ETI, ICS, WRAP which are internationally recognized social/ethical standards.
DCTL is proud of its heritage and commitment to its workforce. DCTL was awarded by Fair Wear Foundation for successfully establishing an Anti Harassment System which is a role model to other factories in Bangladesh.
DCTL has a zero tolerance policy against any form of physical or verbal abuse towards any employee. In the case of any allegation regarding abuse, DCTL conducts a thorough investigation into the matter and takes appropriate action as per strict guidelines defined by the Country Law. In the case of any employee that has separated from the organisation, DCTL has paid the due service benefits according to law.”
Nabeel Ud Daulah Managing Director DIRD Group