May, 07 2009 |  Download PDF |  Share

Metro Group linked to horrific sweatshop conditions in Bangladesh

18 Years Old Fatima was sick, exhausted and overworked to death at the R.L. Denim Factory.


Updates and news coverage

  • Eighteen-year-old woman overworked to death

  • Seventeen-year-old who collapsed on the shop floor kicked by manager;

  • Beatings and forced 20-hour shifts common;

  • Women asking for their legal right to maternity leave are kicked out of the factory without a cent.

  • Metro's clothing is sold in Germany, the United Kingdom and across Europe.


Executive Summary

The world's third largest retailer, Metro Group—with outlets across Europe—is linked to horrific sweatshop abuses in Bangladesh.

At the R.L. Denim factory, 650 mostly young women workers are routinely beaten, denied maternity leave and forced to work grueling hours while being shortchanged of their wages.  Every single labor law in Bangladesh is violated at the factory.

  • Eighteen-year-old Fatema was sick, exhausted and overworked to death on December 7, 2008.  When Fatema begged to be allowed to go home, her supervisor slapped her face.  Fatema was paid 11 ½ U.S. cents an hour, 93 cents a day.
  • When 17-year-old Yasin collapsed unconscious on the factory floor, the plant manager violently kicked him.
  • Pregnant women who plead for their legal right to maternity leave with pay are thrown out of the factory without a cent.
  • All overtime is obligatory, and workers are routinely at the factory 90 hours a week, forced to work 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, with just one day off a month.  There are frequent all-night, 20-hour shifts, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. the following morning before clothing shipments must leave for Europe.
  • Sewing helpers are paid just 11 ½ cents U.S. an hour, 93 cents a day, $5.60 (U.S.) a week.  Even senior sewers earn below subsistence level wages of 14.4 to 17 cents an hour and $1.15 to $1.38 (U.S.) a day.  Workers and their families are trapped in abject misery.  Workers are cheated of at least 30 percent of the overtime wages due them.
  • Workers are paid 13 cents for each pair of jeans they sew.
  • Workers who fail to meet their assigned production goals—for example, sewing up to 360 belt loops per hour—are cursed at, slapped and even kicked.
  • Corporate audits are a joke, since management keeps two sets of time cards and any worker daring to speak truthfully about factory conditions will be beaten and fired.
  • Metro Group—which accounts for at least 80 percent of total production—is responsible to clean up the R.L. Denim factory, while working with its contractor to guarantee that the legal rights of the workers are finally respected.  Metro Group cannot pull their work from the factory, which would be the worst thing they could do.





Is a Bargain on a Pair of Jeans
Worth a Young Woman's Life?

President Obama Thinks Not.

By Charles Kernaghan

We all like a bargain.  But do we ever stop to imagine what is behind the bargain?  How would we feel if we knew that the cheap jeans we purchased were made by Fatema, an 18-year-old woman paid just 11 ½ U.S. cents an hour, who was exhausted and overworked to death at the R.L. Denim sweatshop in Bangladesh.

When Fatema begged to be allowed to go home, her superior slapped her face.  Pregnant women who ask for maternity leave are thrown out of the factory without a cent.  A 17-year-old boy who passed out on the shop floor was kicked by the plant manager.  Forced to work 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, while being paid just 11 ½ to 17 U.S. cents an hour, R.L. Denim's workers are exhausted and trapped in abject misery, with six people living in a one-room hovel.  Paid just 13 cents for each pair of jeans they sew, these workers are so poor they clean their teeth using their fingers and ashes from the fire.

Knowing this, is the bargain still worth it?

It does not have to be this way.

President Barack Obama believes that Fatema and her co-workers have the right to live and work under humane conditions, with respect for their legal rights, and paid fair wages.

In the last Congress, then-Senator Obama was a co-sponsor of the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act.  He was joined by Senator Joe Biden, who is now Vice President and Senator Hillary Clinton, now Secretary of State, along with 141 other co-sponsors in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.  The anti-sweatshop legislation was originally introduced by Senator Byron Dorgan and Congressman Michael Michaud, and soon it will be re-introduced in the new Congress.

When this legislation becomes law, it will be the first time ever that corporations will be held accountable to respect local labor laws in the countries in which they produce.  The legislation certainly does not attempt to set minimum wage levels, which are solely up to the people and elected governments of each country.  But the legislation does require corporations to respect the International Labor Organization's core internationally recognized worker rights standards:  no child labor;  no forced labor;  freedom of association; the right to organize unions;  the right to bargain collectively, and decent working conditions.  The Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act will apply equally to every country.  If sweatshop goods are found to be made in the United States, they will not be allowed to be sold or exported.  If sweatshop goods are made in Germany, the United Kingdom, China, Bangladesh or any other country, these goods will not be allowed to be imported to or sold in the United States.

Corporations have long demanded, and won, all sorts of enforceable laws—intellectual property and copyright laws, backed up by sanctions—to protect their corporate products, trademarks, labels and logos.  If someone is caught making a knock-off of Mickey Mouse, Barbie, Microsoft or the Nike Swoosh, they will go to prison.  But when we ask these very same companies if we cannot have similar laws to protect the rights of the 16-year-old girl in Mexico who made the Barbie, the corporations respond:  "No.  That would be an impediment to Free Trade."  So as things stand now, Barbie is legally protected, but not the young girl who made her.  This is just plain stupid. 

Human beings deserve at least as much legal protection as corporate products are afforded.

There is even a precedent for this.  When the Burlington Coat Factory was caught using dog and cat fur on its winter jackets made in China, which were being sold in the United States, the U.S. Congress went ballistic—and passed the Dog and Cat Protection Act of 2000.  The law prohibits the import, export or sale in the U.S. of all products made with dog and cat fur.  If we can protect dogs and cats, surely we should also be able to protect the rights of human beings.  We need enforceable internationally recognized labor rights laws and standards beneath which corporations cannot go.

One last point regarding the abusive sweatshop conditions and starvation wages behind so many of the bargains we are offered.  We know that the young workers at the R.L. Denim factory are paid just 13 U.S. cents for each pair of Metro Group jeans they sew.   So, what would happen if the wages were doubled, or even tripled so that the direct labor cost to sew the jeans was now 26 to 39 U.S. cents?  Could we afford this?  If the answer is Yes, then we could lift the more than two million mostly young women garment workers in Bangladesh out of misery and at least into poverty, where they and their families could live with a modicum of dignity.

It is a pity we do not get the chance to meet the workers across the developing world who make so many of the goods we purchase.  If we had that chance, we might think twice about the next bargain. 


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Updates and news coverage

Paid just 12.6 cents an hour at the R.L. Denim factory, Parvin was forced to work over 80 hours a week, beaten, cheated of her wages and terminated in February 2009 when she begged for her maternity leave.