River Island spring 2017 campaign

LONDON – A number of U.K. high-street retailers are under fire from Britain’s Channel 4, which this week broadcast an undercover investigation into British textile workers and their pay as part of its “Dispatches” documentary series.

“Undercover: Britain’s Cheap Clothes,” which aired on TV Monday night, argued that textile workers creating clothing for fast-fashion labels were paid less than half of the U.K.’s National Living Wage.

The program took issue with high-street giants River Island and New Look, accusing them of using suppliers that paid less than half of minimum wage in the U.K., which is 7.50 pounds, or $9.32 at current exchange, per hour. Meanwhile, the program said Missguided.com and Boohoo.com used suppliers that don’t follow employment law.

It alleged that workers earn a little more than three pounds, or $3.73, per hour. The program also flagged dangerous working conditions, such as blocked fire exits and garbage on factory floors.

Channel 4 sent reporter Belal Malek undercover to work various jobs at three factories. While at Fashion Square Ltd., a factory that makes clothes for River Island, Malek was paid three pounds, or $3.73, per hour. He asked why he wasn’t paid the National Living Wage, and his supervisor responded: “We don’t get paid much for our clothes, and we need to compete with China and Bangladesh. If we pay everyone 10 pounds or six pounds per hour, then we will make a loss.”

A New Look spokeswoman said the report was “a disappointing and saddening setback” for the company. The high-street brand said it has terminated its relationship with TS Knitwear, one of the suppliers named and shamed in the program.

“New Look is committed to respecting and improving the lives of workers right across our global business and supply chains, so we are extremely concerned by the outcome of this investigation,” she said. “We have worked hard over the past few years to address potential weaknesses in our supply chain. As a result, we have reduced the number of U.K. suppliers we work with by 80 percent since 2011.

“Following an audit we conducted last summer, we made it clear to the supplier, TS Knitwear, that the factory in question did not meet our required ethical standards and therefore should not be used to manufacture New Look garments. Since then, it has become clear that TS Knitwear has subcontracted a small number of orders to this factory without our knowledge or consent and in breach of our agreement,” the spokeswoman added.

In a statement, TS Knitwear said that due to an unusually large work order, it decided to outsource some production and was “shocked and dismayed” that the factory may have been in breach of legal and ethical obligations. The company said that it would no longer outsource any production work and all orders will be produced in-house.

A spokeswoman from River Island said it removed Fashion Square from its supplier base last year, following two failed audits. “Suppliers were informed not to use this factory for any further River Island orders,” she said. “We are investigating this issue and will take appropriate action. Subcontracting without River Island’s approval is a serious breach of our terms and conditions.”

GMB, a union for warehouse workers, is urging the British government’s labor task force to act against the high-street companies. “Paying people below the minimum wage is a morally repugnant – not to say illegal – way of carrying out business,” said Jude Brimble, GMB national secretary. “The onus is on fast-fashion outlets to make sure everything they sell is ethically produced – within the boundaries of what is right.”

The Ethical Trading Initiative – an alliance of companies, trade unions and NGOs that promote workers’ rights — said it is calling on retailers to address costing strategies and labor costs. The firm said it wants to work more with trade unions and believes it will result in positive working conditions.

“The full force of the law should be applied,” added Brimble. “Some local factory owners are preying on vulnerable groups, including South Asian women with limited English or undocumented migrant workers. The situation is so grave in Leicester [England] – with wages hardly wages at all, and sometimes appalling health and safety violations – that responsible retailers must now consider how they conduct their business in the city.”