Staff at Bangladesh plant tell of fainting and abuse while sewing charity tops designed by group.
Salma has never even heard of the Spice Girls. Her life, hunched over a sewing machine for up to 16 hours a day, is a world away from the luxuries enjoyed by the millionaire pop band.
But while neither knows it, Salma and the Spice Girls are connected. The factory where she has worked for more than five years, off a narrow, winding road three hours’ drive from Dhaka, is where charity T-shirts designed by the group were made.
The £19.40 garments were produced on behalf of the Spice Girls and then sold to raise money for a Comic Relief campaign intended to “champion equality for women”, which pointed out how “women earn less”. It is a reality Salma knows only too well.
Perched on a chair in the tiny room she shares with her husband and seven-year-old son – barely more than 3.5 metres by 3.5 metres (12ft x 12ft) in size – she describes the harsh reality of her working life at the Interstoff Apparels factory.
Salma, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, speaks gently but vividly recounts the repeated injustices she and her colleagues face.
A small gas-burning stove on the floor in a small corridor is shared between four families. There is one toilet – a hole in the ground – and an overhead pipe without a shower head for washing.
Despite her modest surroundings, at 5,000 Bangladeshi taka (£46.30) a month, the rent eats up more than half her 9,080Tk salary, which includes an attendance bonus that she does not receive if she is sick.
Even with her husband’s income, the couple barely get by, with bills including their son’s school fees, food, electricity and medical expenses.
Other workers at Interstoff Apparels’ factory earn less, Salma said. Salaries are set by grades that depend on experience.
Pay is to rise this month as the government increases the minimum wage in the garment industry to 8,000Tk a month. It is the first rise in five years, but workers point out it does little for more experienced employees who already earn more. Salma is expecting a modest increase of a few hundred taka, but is unsure exactly what she will receive.
Workers at the factory are given “impossible” targets of sewing up to 2,000 garments a day, she said.
Speaking through a translator, Salma, who is in her mid-20s, explained: “Suppose someone is given a production target, but she couldn’t hit her goal. The chances are high that she’d get verbally scolded very badly. She might even get called inside the office of the production manager and get verbally abused.
“Inside the production manager’s office they use very bad, abusive language. Like, ‘This isn’t your father’s factory’, ‘The door is wide open, leave if you can’t meet the production goals’.
“Sometimes they use more obscene language like ‘khankir baccha’ (daughter of a prostitute), and many more that I can’t even say.
“Sometimes many female workers can’t bear the insults and pressure from the management, and they quit. Even last month, a few of my colleagues left because they faced very bad behaviour and they were shattered.”
Workers, including those who are pregnant, have to do overtime, she claimed. “Many workers don’t want to do the overtime, sometimes they even cry when the management make them do overtime forcefully. There was a worker I knew who was pregnant and she was forced to do night duty on top of her regular hours and overtime,” Salma said.
“So she had to work from eight in the morning till midnight. She was crying all the time.
“One day she was throwing up and she repeatedly said she’s not feeling well. Still she was forced to work late. She left the job the next day because of that incident.
“It pains so much when we watch this kind of incidents, but there’s only so much we could do. We tried to talk to the supervisor, even offered any of us would fill in for her – just let her go. But the supervisor didn’t agree, he said, ‘No, she has to finish her shift’.”
Salma estimated she has to work overtime in the evenings for half the days in the month, sometimes until midnight. The intense work environment creates health problems for machinists.
“Fainting is pretty common,” she said. “Especially during the hot summer. Also, the huge workloads put a lot of pressure on the workers. Sometimes they just fall from their chairs. It happens every month.
“I think it is because of the workload and also they can’t sleep properly because they are working late, but also they have to come to the office in the morning. So they don’t get enough sleep in between. There are many workers with neck and back pain as well because they are always working on [the] same posture.
“There are air conditioners in the floor but it’s too many people. So it’s always hot.”
Recently, she said, she has started to have severe neck pain. “It is a huge trouble,” she said. “The doctor has shown me some exercises. But for that, I have to take at least a 10-minute break during my shift. If I take a break and when I return to my station, I see a huge number of products already piled up there.”
A spokesman for the band said they were “deeply shocked and appalled” by cases such as Salma’s and would personally fund an investigation into the factory’s working conditions. Comic Relief said the charity was “shocked and concerned”.
The online retailer that sold the T-shirts, Represent, said it took “full responsibility” for the situation, while Interstoff said the findings would be investigated but were “simply not true”.
Salma is not alone. Another machinist at the factory, a single mother of two who has worked there since 2013, told how she is forced to loan money from family and neighbours to survive.
She said she is paid 8,450Tk a month, including a 600Tk attendance bonus, for a 54-hour week including paid lunch breaks. It would take her more than a week to earn the £19.40 it cost to buy one of the Spice Girls T-shirts.
The wages barely cover her rent and the school fees for her 17-year-old daughter and younger sister. She recently had to borrow 20,000Tk from her brother for bills. Her ex-husband, who has a new family, provides no financial support.
The machinist, in her mid-30s, said she has no choice but to work overtime. In the most extreme cases, she and her colleagues stay on until midnight. “Recently the workload has gone down, but I had spent as long as 16 hours per day working in the factory on several occasions. And I lost count how many days I worked this long in the past six years, but the number would be huge,” she said.
Though she desperately needs the extra money, she also yearns for the freedom to be able to choose when she finishes.
“When my elder daughter appeared for a public examination, I was given ‘night duties’ on top of my regular work hours – every day. One day I cried for three hours just to get an early leave, but I wasn’t given any. I couldn’t help her revising, I couldn’t cook on time, she wasn’t fed properly,” the woman said.
Speaking at the end of an 11-hour shift, she said: “We don’t get a choice. The factory only cares about their problems, not ours. It’s terrible.”
Such is the pressure to work and hit targets, she is scared to use her 10-day holiday entitlement. Last year, she took three days; the year before, it was seven.
The male managers are intimidating and regularly shout at machinists, she explained. It is so normal, she said she barely notices any more.
There is a medical facility at the factory and workers can sometimes get sick pay, but on many occasions they do not, the woman added.
She said she once went home during a lunch break and vomited, and had to be taken to a clinic by concerned neighbours, meaning she missed the rest of her shift. She was not paid.
When complimented about how hard she works for her family, she offers a fleeting smile. For the rest of the interview, she soberly describes the hardships in her life.
She asked British consumers to consider the circumstances that she and other similar workers face.
“The salary we get is peanuts compared with the enormous pressure we face every day at work,” she said. “The environment is not good either. I just want to address this issue to the global audience that we don’t get paid enough and we work in inhuman conditions here.”