Salma has never even heard of the Spice Girls. His life, leaning up to 16 hours a day on a sewing machine, is far from the luxury that the millionaire pop group possesses.
But if no one knows, Salma and the Spice Girls are related. The factory where she has been working for more than five years, on a narrow winding road three hours drive from Dhaka, is where the group's charity t-shirts are made.
Clothing at £ 19.40 was produced on behalf of the Spice Girls, then sold to raise money as part of a "Comic Relief" campaign to "promote equal opportunities for women", which showed that "women earn less". It's a reality that Salma knows all too well.
Perched on a chair in the small room she shares with her husband and seven-year-old son – just over 3.5 meters by 3.5 meters – she describes the harsh reality of her professional life at Interstoff Apparels . factory.
Salma, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, speaks softly but recounts the repeated injustices she and her colleagues are experiencing.
A small gas stove on the ground in a small corridor is shared between four families. There is a toilet – a hole in the floor – and an upper hose without a shower head for washing.
Despite her modest environment, at 5,000 Bangladeshi taka (£ 46.30) a month, the rent absorbs more than half of her salary of 9,080Tk, which includes an attendance bonus that she does not receive if she is sick.
• Machinists at Interstoff's Gazipur plant sew clothing together for approximately 35 lb / hr.
• T-shirts are shipped to the Czech Republic, where another company prints the slogan #IWannaBeASpiceGirl.
• The Belgian brand Stanley / Stella, which oversees the production process, receives about £ 5 (£ 4.40) for each t-shirt from the US "home sales platform" Represent.
• The Spice Girls, who announced that the product of the t-shirts would go to Comic Relief, appear on the Jonathan Ross Show in November, the host waving proudly one of the clothes in front of the camera.
• Represent, who was commissioned by the Spice Girls to make the t-shirts, sells them online at £ 19.40 each, including postage and packaging.
• Comic Relief stated that the sale of each t-shirt generated approximately £ 11.60.
Even with her husband's income, the couple barely passes, with bills including their son's tuition, food, electricity, and medical bills.
According to Salma, other workers at the Interstoff Apparels factory earn less. Salaries are set by grades that depend on experience.
Wages will rise this month, with the government raising the minimum wage in the garment industry to 8,000Tk a month. This is the first increase in five years, but workers point out that it does not do much for more experienced employees who are already earning more. Salma expects a modest increase of a few hundred taka, but does not know exactly what she will receive.
Factory workers have the "impossible" goal of sewing up to 2,000 garments a day, she said.
Jessie J wears the I Want to be a Spice Girl t-shirt, which was sold to raise funds for Comic Relief. Photography: Jessie J / Instagram
Salma, a teenager in her twenties, explained, "Suppose we target a production target, but can not achieve its goal. There is a good chance that she will be verbally reprimanded very badly. She could even be called into the production manager's office and verbally abused.
"In the office of the director of production, they use very hard and abusive language. Like "This is not your father's factory", "The door is wide open, leave if you can not reach the production targets."
"Sometimes they use more obscene language like"khankir baccha'(Prostitute girl), and many others that I can not even say.
"Sometimes, a lot of women workers do not stand up to the insults and the pressure of management and they give up. Even last month, some of my colleagues left because they were facing very bad behavior and that they were broken. "
Women workers, including those who are pregnant, have to work overtime, she said. "Many workers do not want to work overtime, sometimes they cry even when management forces them to work overtime with force. There was a worker I knew who was pregnant and she was forced to do night service in addition to her regular hours and overtime, "said Salma.
The Spice Girls are "deeply shocked and outraged" by the Guardian's findings, according to a spokeswoman for the group, who said he found "heartbreaking to see the treatment of these women." The group had asked Represent, the online retailer selling the T-shirts, to guarantee that the clothes would be made ethically, and said the manufacturer had been changed without his knowledge.
The band pledged to personally fund a survey of the plant's working conditions and asked Represent to donate profits to "campaigns to end such injustices".
A spokesman for Comic Relief said the charity was "shocked and preoccupied" and had also checked the provider's ethical references, which had subsequently been changed without his knowledge. The charity received about £ 11.60 for each t-shirt sold at £ 19.40, the spokesman added.
Represent said it would reimburse customers on request, calling the conditions reported to the factory "appalling and unacceptable".
One representative stated: "Represent applies strict ethical standards of procurement for all our manufacturers. We felt confident to print Stanley / Stella's blank shirts for this campaign because of the brand's strong reputation and leadership within the Fair Wear Foundation.
"To clarify, Comic Relief and Spice Girls have made every effort to ensure ethical shopping. We take full responsibility for the choice of Stanley / Stella in this campaign and confirm that it is something we have not brought to the attention. from Spice Girls or Comic Relief. "
The co-owner of the plant, Shahriar Alam, Bangladeshi Minister of Foreign Affairs, said that he did not think that it was "fair, from a journalistic point of view, of Add my name to this story ". He admitted to being a co-owner and co-founder of the company's founding company, Interstoff, but said he resigned from the board of directors five years ago.
Interstoff Apparels director Naimul Bashar Chowdhury confirmed that the factory had produced blank T-shirts for Stanley / Stella. He said that Alam was "a mere shareholder of the company" and was not involved in the management of the company.
He added that the company would investigate the Guardian's findings but also described them as "just plain wrong," adding that Interstoff applied a "zero tolerance policy on harassment and use of any jargon." or offensive language ". However, he admitted that there had been "isolated incidents" in "a long period where verbal abuse resulted in the dismissal of an employee".
He added that no complaints had been received about excessive goals and that the company was complying with the government 's statutory minimum wage. She has a "participation committee" elected by the workers to express their complaints, he said, adding that the factory was regularly audited.
"Living wage is a questionable and subjective question; we can tell ourselves that our base salary is in line with local law and that we have several performance-based financial incentives, "added Chowdhury.
He pointed out that the company employs 80 disabled workers, that the staff is trained in harassment and abuse, and that a medical center of the factory provides health care. Pregnant workers are subject to monthly medical examinations, Chowdhury said.
Bruno Van Sieleghem, sustainable development manager at Stanley / Stella, said the brand was investigating the results and "strongly committed to helping this country and its workers improve their well-being". The Fair Wear Foundation, a brand-driven organization working to improve standards, audits Interstoff every three years, he said, adding that the company's team was "closely watching" the "plan". corrective measures "of the FWF.
He added that Stanley / Stella knew that Interstoff's machinists were working overtime until 9 pm, but that they were not working until midnight. He added that the brand had not received any reports of employees complaining of harassment at the factory.
He added that the brand, which received about € 5 (£ 4.40) for each t-shirt, was committed to improving the standards of garment workers bangladeshbut admitted to using factories in the country as they offer a "competitive price". The t-shirts were printed by a Czech company, added Van Sieleghem.
The FWF said it inspected the plant in December and interviewed 30 off-site workers. The organization said some "nonconformities" had been discovered, but that the interviews "did not reflect the allegations of harassment in the factory". However, the foundation acknowledged that this "does not mean that it has not happened".
She called the hours of use "excessive", but according to FWF, workers are "free to refuse overtime". He said that he supported paid staff at a living wage.
"So she had to work from eight in the morning to midnight. She cried all the time.
"One day, she vomited and she repeated that she did not feel well. She was nevertheless forced to work late. She left work the next day because of this incident.
"It's so painful to see such incidents, but we can not do more. We tried to talk to the supervisor, and we even suggested to one of us to replace him – let him go. But the supervisor did not agree, he said. "No, she has to finish her shift."
Salma felt that she needed to work overtime in the evenings for half the days of the month, sometimes until midnight. The intense work environment creates health problems for the machinists.
"Fainting is pretty common," she said. "Especially during the hot summer. In addition, huge workloads put a lot of pressure on workers. Sometimes they just fall off their chairs. It happens every month.
"I think it's because of the workload and they can not sleep properly because they work late, but they also have to go to the office in the morning. So, they do not sleep enough between the two. Many workers also suffer from neck and back pain because they are still working [the] same posture.
Factory staff said that he worked up to 16 hours a day to achieve production goals. Photography: Noor Alam / Guardian
"There are air conditioners in the ground but it's too crowded. So, it's always hot.
Recently, she began to have severe neck pain. "It's a big problem," she said. "The doctor showed me exercises. But for that, I have to take at least 10 minutes break during my shift. If I take a break and come back to my station, I see a lot of stuff already piled up there. "
A spokesman for the group said that they were "deeply shocked and outraged" by deals such as that of Salma and that they would personally fund an investigation into the factory's working conditions. Comic Relief stated that the charity was "shocked and worried".
Represent, the online retailer who sold the t-shirts, said that he assumed "full responsibility" for the situation, while Interstoff said the findings would be reviewed but that They were "simply false".
Salma is not alone. Another factory machinist, a single mother of two who works there since 2013, said she was forced to lend money to her family and neighbors to survive.
She reported receiving 8,450TK per month, including a 600TK attendance bonus, for a 54-hour work week, including paid lunch breaks. It would take him more than a week to earn the £ 19.40 that it cost him to buy one of the Spice Girls t-shirts.
Wages barely cover her rent and school fees for her 17-year-old daughter and her younger sister. She recently had to borrow 20,000Tk from her brother to pay her bills. Her ex-husband, who has a new family, provides no financial support.
The machinist, aged about 30, said she had no choice but to work overtime. In the most extreme cases, she and her colleagues stay until midnight. "The workload has recently decreased, but several times, I had worked 16 hours a day in the factory. And I lost count of the number of days that I've worked so long over the past six years, but that number would be huge, "she said.
Although she desperately needs this extra money, she also longs for the freedom to choose when she's done.
The Spice Girls t-shirts were priced at £ 19.40, which would take more than a week for a typical machinist. Photography: Noor Alam / Guardian
Once, she cried for hours at work, begging the bosses to let her go in time to help her daughter review her important exams. But she was told that she had to stay in the factory.
"When my eldest daughter appeared for a public examination, I was given" night chores "in addition to my normal hours of work – every day. One day, I cried for three hours just to get early leave, but I did not receive any compensation. I could not help her to revise, I could not cook on time, she had not been fed properly, "said the woman.
At the end of an 11-hour shift, she said, "We have no choice. The factory is only interested in their problems, not ours. It's terrible. "
That is the pressure to work and reach the targets, she is afraid to use her 10 days off. Last year she took three days; the year before, he was seven years old.
Bangladeshi textile workers block a road during a protest for wage increases in Dhaka earlier this month. Photo: Munir Uz Zaman / AFP / Getty Images
Male managers are intimidating and regularly shout to machinists, she explained. It's so normal, she says, she hardly notices it anymore.
There is a medical center in the factory and workers can sometimes receive sick pay, but they do not do it often, the woman added.
She said that she had gone once to her home during the lunch break, that she had been vomiting and that she was to be taken to a clinic by worried neighbors, which means that she was not sure. she missed the rest of her shift. She was not paid.
When she is complimented for her hard work for her family, she offers a fleeting smile. For the rest of the interview, she soberly describes the difficulties of her life.
"I never compromise on the education of my children, so I have to sacrifice a lot of other things, like good food, clothes. It's winter and my kids need warm clothes, but in the last few months I've told them to wait, but I still can not buy them, "the woman added.
She asked British consumers to take into account the circumstances in which she and other similar workers were in the same situation.
"The salary we receive is peanuts compared to the enormous pressure we face every day at work," she said. "The environment is not good either. I simply want to address this issue to the global public: we are not paid enough and we work in inhumane conditions here. "
Additional reporting by Redwan Ahmed