Spice Girls T-shirts sold to raise funds for the Comic Relief Women's Justice Campaign were made in a factory in Bangladesh where women earn the equivalent of 35 cents an hour when they claim to have been verbally abused and harassed. , revealed a Guardian investigation.

The charity, carrying the message "#IWannaBeASpiceGirl", was produced by mostly female machinists who claimed to have been forced to work 16 hours a day and called "prostitute girls" by their directors for failing to hit targets .

The money raised through the sales of the £ 19.40 t-shirts will be donated to the Comic Relief fund to help "defend equal opportunities for women". The charity received £ 11.60 for each of the t-shirts, which were commissioned and designed by the group.

Announcing the partnership, the Spice Girls said the cause was important to them because "equality and the movement of people's power have always been at the heart of the group."

But one of the machinists at the factory who produced the social media-inspired clothes by TV presenter Holly Willoughby, singer Sam Smith and Jessie J, and Olympian Jessica Ennis-Hill, said: "We are not paid enough and we work under inhumane. "

T-shirts, which also have the words "gender justice" on the back, were made by workers earning much less than a living wage. The plant is partly owned by a minister of the authoritarian coalition government of Bangladesh, who won 96% of the vote last month in an election described as "wacky" by critics. There is no suggestion the celebrities were aware of the conditions at the factory.

A Spice Girls spokeswoman said that they were "deeply shocked and outraged" and that they would personally fund an investigation into the factory's working conditions. Comic Relief stated that the charity was "shocked and concerned".

Jessica Ennis-Hill wearing a Spice Girls charity t-shirt

The t-shirt campaign was supported by celebrities, including Olympian Jessica Ennis-Hill. Photography: Jessica Ennis-Hill / Instagram

They both claimed to have verified the references of the online supplier, Online Representative, who was responsible for making the t-shirts requested by Represent, but that the manufacturer had changed manufacturers without their knowledge. Represent stated that he assumed "full responsibility" and would reimburse clients upon request. The group said Represent should donate its profits to "campaigns to end such injustices".

Interstoff Apparels, the company behind the factory that made the t-shirts, said the findings would be reviewed but they were "just plain wrong". However, a body of evidence about the conditions faced by employees has been discovered, including allegations that:

  • According to a recent pay slip, some machinists are paid 8,800Tk (£ 82) a month, which means that they earn the equivalent of 35 pounds per hour for a 54-hour work week. The sum is well below the 16,000 tons of wages demanded by the unions and remains well below the estimates of the living wage.

  • Employees are forced to work overtime to achieve "impossible" goals of sewing thousands of clothes a day, which means that they sometimes work in teams of 16 hours and end at midnight.

  • Factory workers who do not target are verbally abused by management and crying. Some have been forced to work despite health problems.

These revelations highlight the risks associated with the complexity of supply chains and will exacerbate longstanding concerns about the conditions prevailing among apparel manufacturers sold at considerable margins by British retailers.

To say that conditions seemed to be "well beyond normal illegalities" in factories bangladeshDominique Muller, Political Director of the Labor Behind the Label Campaign Group, added: "It is absolutely essential that celebrities, charities and brands ensure that their products are made in factories with a living wage and a job. decent.

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 in Bangladesh, but acknowledged that she was 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.

The factory was used to produce the t-shirts of the Belgian brand Stanley / Stella, which claimed to closely monitor the operations. But Muller warned: "The evidence from this plant clearly shows the failure of the current audit and brand monitoring. Stanley / Stella claims to have monitored all its factories in Bangladesh and yet the evidence shows gross violations of labor law and human rights. Brands must step up their game. "

Bruno Van Sieleghem, Sustainable Development Manager at Stanley / Stella, said the company was investigating the results and remained "firmly committed to helping this country and the workers to improve their well-being".

graphic of spice girls

The t-shirts were manufactured at the Interstoff plant in Gazipur, about three hours drive from Dhaka, the capital. Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh's foreign minister, is co-owner of the company and makes clothes for a number of British retailers. Interstoff exported for £ 4.3m and earned pre-tax profit of £ 2m in 2014-15, according to accounts with Companies House in the United Kingdom. In 2013-2014, it achieved a pre-tax profit of £ 2.5 million.

Alam, whose government has been accused of suppress freedom of expression in arresting reporters, said that he did not think that it was "just, from a journalistic point of view, to add my name to this story". He admitted to being a co-owner and co-founder of Interstoff, but said he had resigned from the board five years ago. Interstoff said that he was not involved in the management of the company.

A local Interstoff Apparels in Bangladesh

A local of Interstoff Apparels, the company that made the t-shirts, in Bangladesh.

A Bangladeshi activist, who asked not to be named for fear of government retaliation, said, "The women who produce these clothes are receiving a pittance. They do not have a decent job. What kind of gender justice is this?

According to the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a global coalition of unions, labor groups and human rights organizations, the monthly living wage for Bangladesh was 37,661Tk in 2017. Another report, produced by academics for ISEAL, a non-profit group, set Gazipur's living wage at 13,630 TK in 2016. In 2014, Comic Relief pledged to pay a living wage to all its employees .

But the Gazipur workers, whose identity cards the Guardian saw, face a different reality.

Speaking under the guise of anonymity, a machinist who has been working at the factory for more than five years and earned 9,080TK per month, including an attendance bonus, said: "We We have almost nothing. The salaries we receive are very small. It's barely enough to survive.

• 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 t-shirt proceeds would go to Comic Relief, will be on display at the Jonathan Ross Show in November. The host will proudly brand 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.

The machinist, who has neck problems due to a sewing machine, is struggling to cope and provide for his seven-year-old son.

"In the production manager's office, they use very harsh and abusive language, like" This is not your father's factory "," The door is wide open, leave if you can not reach the goals production, "she said.

"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. "

The factory's machinists, who employ about 4,000 people, work from 8 am to 5 pm six days a week, including a paid meal break of one hour a day, but are regularly forced to work overtime, according to the workers.

Sam Smith wearing a charity t-shirt

There is no reason to believe that the celebrities who created the t-shirts, including Sam Smith, were aware of the factory conditions. Photography: Sam Smith / Instagram

We understand that overtime is paid at a higher rate than regular shifts. The mother of a person who lives in a small room with her husband and child said, "If management wants us to work overtime, we have no choice but to do it."

She felt that she needed to work overtime in the evenings for half the days of the month. Last year, added the machinist, a three-month pregnant colleague stopped after being forced by management to work until midnight despite vomiting.

She also claimed that employees often fainted in the heat of the factory, while many had neck and back problems.

Another machinist, who has been working for Interstoff since 2013, said she was forced to take out loans to get out of it.

The single mother of two children earns 8,450Tk per month, including assistance premium. She recently borrowed 20,000Tk from her brother.

Garment workers in Bangladesh

Clothing workers protested against low wages in Bangladesh's industry. Photography: Noor Alam / Guardian

"The amount I am paid is not enough at all. You see that I am the only breadwinner in the family. I have to pay for my daughter's education alone and to meet the expenses of the family, "she said.

"Our supervisor is very intimidating and scary. We always try to avoid any confrontation with him; we do not want to face him. They have always set target production so high that we almost never could reach them. I do not remember the last time we achieved our goal. "

The garment industry accounts for 80% of Bangladesh's exports and employs more than 4 million people. Although it contributed to the country's economic growth, the industry was beset by controversy over low wages and unsafe working conditions.

In 2013, 1,134 people died when the The Rana Plaza has collapsed due to structural failures.

Additional reporting by Redwan Ahmed