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Feminist t-shirts 'sweatshop' row

A women's rights charity behind a t-shirt campaign now caught up in controversy over claims the products were made in "sweatshop" conditions has said it will order the clothes be withdrawn from sale if the reports are proven.

The T-shirts, proudly worn by Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Harriet Harman proclaiming their feminist credentials, are made by women workers being paid just 62p an hour, the Mail on Sunday reported.

The paper said its investigation had found the t-shirts with the slogan "This is what a feminist looks like" were being produced on a factory on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius where the women machinists sleep 16 to a room.

Fashion retailer Whistles, which sells the garments for £45 each, described the allegations as "extremely serious" and said it would be mounting an urgent investigation.

The t-shirts hit the headlines last week when Mr Miliband and Mr Clegg posed in them for photographs for Elle magazine as part of a campaign by the Fawcett Society - which receives all the profits - to promote women's rights.

After David Cameron refused repeated requests to join them, Ms Harman, the Labour deputy leader, then wore one at Prime Minister's Questions in an attempt to embarrass him.

The Mail on Sunday, which toured one of six factories on the island owned by Compagnie Mauricienne de Textile, (CMT) which produces the garments, reported the workers were earning just 6,000 rupees a month - equivalent to £120.

The paper said the figure was just a quarter of the country's average monthly wage, and around half of what a waiter earns.

Fayzal Ally Beegun, president of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Union, told the paper: "The workers in this factory are treated very poorly and the fact that politicians in England are making a statement using these sweatshop t-shirts is appalling."

Dr Eva Neitzert, deputy chief executive at the Fawcett Society, said they had been assured by Whistles that the t-shirts were produced to "ethical standards".

She said they had originally been assured the garments would be produced ethically in the UK, and when they received samples in early October they noted they had in fact been made in Mauritius.

They were assured by Whistles that the factory was "a fully audited, socially and ethical compliant factory" and decided to continue with the collaboration.

"We have been very disappointed to hear the allegations that conditions in the Mauritius factory may not adhere to the ethical standards that we, as the Fawcett Society, would require of any product that bears our name," she said.

"At this stage, we require evidence to back up the claims being made by a journalist at the Mail on Sunday. However, as a charity that campaigns on issues of women's economic equality, we take these allegations extremely seriously and will do our utmost to investigate them.

"If any concrete and verifiable evidence of mistreatment of the garment producers emerges, we will require Whistles to withdraw the range with immediate effect and donate part of the profits to an ethical trading campaigning body.

"Whilst we wish to apologise to all those concerned who may have experienced adverse conditions, we remain confident that we took every practicable and reasonable step to ensure that the range would be ethically produced and await a fuller understanding of the circumstances under which the garments were produced."

A spokesman for Whistles told the Mail: "We place a high priority on environmental, social and ethical issues. The allegations regarding the production of t-shirts in the CMT factory in Mauritius are extremely serious and we are investigating them as a matter of urgency.

"CMT has Oekotex accreditation (an independent certificate for the supply chain) ,which fully conforms to the highest standards in quality and environmental policy, while having world-class policies for sustainable development, social, ethical and environmental compliance.

"We carry out regular audits of our suppliers in line with our high corporate social responsibility standards and can share the following information regarding the CMT factory in Mauritius."

A spokesman for the Deputy Prime Minister said: "Nick Clegg had no idea where these t-shirts were being made and can only assume that the Fawcett Society were unaware of the origins, or they would not have asked him to wear it.

"He remains entirely supportive of efforts to ensure all women are treated as equals in this country and the world over."

A Labour Party spokesman said: "This was a campaign run by Elle and the Fawcett Society to promote feminism and we were happy to support it. Anything else is a matter for Elle magazine and the Fawcett Society."

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said Labour had called for companies to do more to tackle problems within their supply chain and would be tabling amendments to the Government's Modern Slavery Bill next week to that end.

She told Sky News' Murnaghan programme: "In this case the company has already said they will now investigate. They absolutely should do so.

"There is a separate question about whether people are prepared to say they are a feminist. I think it's sad that David Cameron isn't."

Scottish Labour leader candidate Jim Murphy said it was "disappointing" that due diligence did not appear to have been done.

Speaking to BBC Radio 5 live, he said: " There has to be a degree of due diligence and it's disappointing - and I don't blame Harriet or any of the other politicians - but disappointing if the charities or whoever's been involved in helping to make that happen hasn't done due diligence."

Energy Secretary Ed Davey said he was "delighted" the Mail on Sunday would be taking up the issue.

He told the BBC's Sunday Politics: "I'm delighted the Mail on Sunday is going to campaign for low paid workers in developing countries.

"Some of us have campaigned for many years to make sure people who are on low wages get treated better, whether in the UK or elsewhere.

"The Mail on Sunday hasn't been a natural ally in that campaign."


From Belfast Telegraph