May, 10 2012 |  Download PDF |  Share

See Nothing, Know Nothing, Do Nothing

European and Australian retailers stand by as women sewing their garments at the Northern Fashion factory in Bangladesh are cheated of their maternity benefits, beaten, forced to work 14 to 16 hours a day for just 21 cents an hour, while being trapped in miserable and rat infested slums.




Execuive Summary

  • Bangladesh's garment workers are some of the hardest working women in the world, but also among the poorest.
  • Pregnant women are being cheated of their paid legal maternity leave and fired without their back wages, severance, vacation time and their Eid religious festival bonus.
  • While Ms. Rina Begum was pregnant, she was forced to work 14 to 16 hours a day, leaving no time for prenatal care.  She gave birth to a son.  But Imram lived just two days and died at 4:00 p.m. on July 28, 2011.
  • When Rina's husband, who also worked at Northern Fashion, pleaded with management for his wife's maternity leave and benefits, he too was fired and thrown out without any of his back wages.
  • Working 86- to 92-hour weeks, workers earned just 21 to 25 cents an hour.
  • Workers are prohibited from speaking during working hours, and if they do so, they are beaten.
  • Supervisors throw garments in the women's faces, cursing at them to go faster.
  • Workers have no health care; no paid sick leave.
  • Management strictly prohibits even the mention of a union.  If workers are suspected of organizing, they will be immediately terminated.
  • Workers and their families are housed in tiny tin hovels not fit for human habitation. One hundred fifty people share just two water pumps, washing with their clothes on as there is no privacy.
  • European and Australian corporate codes of conducts are failing miserably.
  • Workers told us they have no hope and no future, if conditions remain as they are in the Northern Fashion sweatshop.
  • Retailers involved in cheating workers at the Northern Fashion Sweatshop in Bangladesh:  

     New Look (United Kingdom)                         
     Forever New (Australia)         
     ONLY for Bestseller (Denmark)                 
     Sergent Major (France)                 
     St. Bernard for Dunnes Stores (Ireland)

Northern Fashion Limited
Plot #16-18, Dakhin Panishail
Kashimpur, Gazipur

Managing Director:   Mr. Mohim Hassan
                              The owner is a member of the powerful
                              Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA)
Phone: 8802-988-2516;  988-2517
Fax: 8802-988-2610;  980-0338
Employees: Approximately 1,300-plus workers
Production: T-shirts, tank tops and polo shirts
Labels: New Look (United Kingdom)
Forever New (Australia)
Bestseller (Denmark)
Sergent Major (France)
St. Bernard for Dunnes Stores (Ireland)

There is a sign posted at the entrance to Northern Fashion claiming their factory is in strict compliance with the country's 2006 labour law and all International Labour Organization worker rights standards.


Corporate Codes of Conduct Are No Match
For Well-run, Violent and Abusive Sweatshops

Charles Kernaghan
May 10, 2012
Over the last 20 years, the concrete impact of monitoring voluntary corporate codes of conduct across the developing world has been minimal and disappointing at best.  The case of the Northern Fashion factory on the outskirts of Dhaka is a perfect example.  A woman's right to paid maternity leave, as modest as it is-is guaranteed under Bangladesh's labor law.  But it is widely ignored and poorly enforced.  Enter the European and Australian retailers, who add their own voluntary corporate codes of conduct, requiring their supplier factories across the developing world to guarantee a woman's right to paid maternity leave.  Unfortunately, the European and Australian codes of conduct too have had no positive impact regarding the enforcement of paid maternity leave.

There is a good starting point however, as Europe and Australia have some of the best maternity leave policies in the world.  If the European and Australian labels are serious about guaranteeing women's right to paid maternity leave at the Northern Fashion factory, then they will have to pay at least enough money for each garment to cover the modest maternity benefits required under Bangladeshi law.

The power is in the hands of the labels.  If they truthfully want to enforce maternity leave benefits at their supplier plants in Bangladesh and other countries (and this is the real question)-they could do it immediately.  What could possibly stop them?

The labels have to get the monkey off their back-carrying around their all-encompassing voluntary codes of conduct-and instead focus on one legal right at a time.  No one can stop the retailers from enforcing both national law and the International Labour Organization's core internationally recognized worker rights standards.

Let's see how long it takes the European and Australian labels to guarantee full maternity leave benefits for the Bangladeshi women who sew their garments at the Northern Fashion factory.

A Walk through Hell

Mrs. Rina Begum's tiny son, Imram, was born at 6:00 a.m. on July 27, 2011 at home, with the help of a midwife.  Her baby could not breath properly, cried constantly and was bleeding from his navel.  Imram lived just two days and died at 4:00 p.m. on July 28.

Mr. Begum was 18 years old when she joined Northern Fashion as a sewing operator on October 25, 2009.  In the eighth month of her pregnancy, she asked for maternity leave, and stopped working on May 24, 2011.  It was just two months later, on July 28, that her two-day-old son died.  She had repeatedly begged Northern Fashion's administrative manager, Mr. Mohammad Amin, and the compliance officer, Mr. Mamum, to pay her maternity leave, but they refused.

The Bangladeshi Labor Law of 2006, Section 46, stipulates that pregnant garment workers are entitled to 112 days of paid maternity leave.  Maternity benefits are calculated according to the average wage-including overtime-earned by the woman during the three months immediately preceding her giving notice.  Ms. Rina Begum's maternity benefits should have totaled $2.11 a day, and for the 112 days' maternity leave, she should have received $236.41.  It's not an enormous amount of money, but it might just have kept her soon-to-be-born child a little healthier, and alive.  Rina also worked until her eighth month of pregnancy, putting in 14-hour shifts, from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. or sometimes until 11:30 p.m. or 12:30 a.m.  Because of the heavy workload, she had very little time for pre-natal care.

Not only was Ms. Begum denied her maternity leave, but when she tried to return to work, she was immediately fired and thrown out of the factory with nothing-no severance pay, no earned leave (in lieu of the legal vacation days she had worked through), and no Eid holiday bonus.  She was illegally robbed by Northern Fashion management of at least $350 in benefits due her.

When Rina's husband, Mr. Sayad Jamal, who also worked at Northern Fashion, asked management to at least pay his wife the legal benefits due her, they immediately fired him and threw him out of the factory without any of the benefits due him.

Rina was not alone.  Ms. Shapla Begum had worked at Northern Fashion since September 18, 2010, as a senior sewing operator.  On May 11, 2011, she went out on maternity leave, giving birth to a baby girl on July 2, 2011.  When she tried to return to work, Ms. Shapla Begum too was thrown out of the factory-by the production manager, Mr. Pintu, and compliance officer, Mr. Mamum-and denied her maternity benefits, severance pay, vacation pay and the Eid festival bonus due her.  Like Rina, Ms. Shapla Begum was robbed of at least $325 in benefits legally due her.  When Ms. Begum's husband, Mr. Mukul, tried to intervene on behalf of his wife, he too was fired without any of the outstanding legal benefits due him.

Denying the legal rights of pregnant women workers and firing them is not only the norm at Northern Fashion, it can be quite lucrative.

The question is whether or not New Look (United Kingdom), Forever New (Australia), Bestseller (Denmark), Sergent Major (France) and St. Bernard for Dunnes Stores (Ireland) will lift a finger to help the Bangladeshi women who sew their garments.

The Northern Fashion workers told us that they were paid five cents (USD) for each t-shirt they sewed.  Forty-five workers on line (including sewing operators and helpers) had to complete 200 t-shirts every hour, which comes to 13.6 worker-minutes per shirt.

  • In 2011, 44 percent of women in the United Kingdom purchased clothing from New Look, which is the country's number two womenswear and accessories retailer.
  • Forever New targets teenaged girls and is partly owned by Dipendra Goenka, who are reported to be worth more than $10 million (Australian).
  • The ONLY label is owned by Bestseller in Denmark, which is privately owned by the Holch Povlsen family, who "top the list of Denmark's richest businessmen."  The Danish Ethical Trading Initiative has a partner relationship with Bestseller to improve factory conditions.
  • Sergent Major, which has 280 stores in France, specializes in children's clothing from infants to 14-year-olds.  In 2006, Sergent Major purchased the Natalys retailer, explaining that both labels "continue to evolve around the baby world"
  • St. Bernard is produced for Dunnes Stores, Ireland's largest retailer.  Their clothing for children age 10 to 11 is being sewn at the Northern Fashion factory in Bangladesh.
"Sergent Major", "Dunnes", "Forever New", "ONLY" and "New Look" labels smuggled out from Northern Fashion factory by workers in October 2011, December 2011 and February 2012.

An Unimaginable Life

We met Rina in her tiny house, which was constructed entirely of blackened corrugated metal, just 5 ½ feet wide, six feet deep, with a metal ceiling that slopes from six feet high on one side to just five feet on the other.  In her and her husband’s one room home, there was no window, just one dull light bulb hanging from the roof, a dirty concrete floor and one small wooden door.  There were both mice and rats.  Their bed took up over half the room.  Other than that there was a single chair, a broken-down cabinet and a tiny table.  Their few clothes were hung on small hooks in the roof.  They could not afford a radio or television.

“It is very hard to live here,” she told us, “and it’s especially hard to sleep here due to the heat...  We are sweating all the time.”

There is no indoor plumbing.  The 150 people who live in this small neighborhood of rented rooms share just two hand pumps for water.  There are eight latrines for all 150 residents.  There are just 10 gas burners shared by all the families, so cooking must be done in shifts.
Shared latrines in Rina’s neighborhood

For their tiny hovel, they had to pay 1800 taka ($21.95) each month to the slum landlord.  The rent was not cheap, consuming 25 percent of their combined monthly wages.

Rina and the other men and women in the community rise at 5:30 a.m.—and definitely no later than 6:00—to line up to cook rice and vegetables at the shared burners, to wash at the pump (both men and women wash with their clothes on, since there is no privacy), to use the latrine and to fetch water to drink and cook with.

They had to be at work before 8:30 a.m.  Their lunch hour was from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m., when they ran home to eat mashed potatoes and vegetables.  Once a month, they might splurge, buying the cheapest broiler chicken.  Their work shift usually ended at 10:30 p.m., 11:30 p.m. or past midnight.  They slept no more than five hours a night.

When asked, Rina told us she “never relaxes.”  On Sunday, her day off, she cleans their room, washes clothes, cooks, and if there is time, takes a nap.  In her life, she has never gone to a movie, drunk tea at a cafe or eaten in a restaurant.

Rina is cooking with her neighbors


Rina And Her Husband Certainly Are Not Slackers

Their standard shift was 14 hours a day, from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., but it was not uncommon for them to be kept working until 11:00 p.m., 12:00 midnight or 12:45 a.m.  Since the Northern Fashion factory is shut down on Sundays-(due to electricity shortages, garment factories have been assigned different days off)-it was common for the workers to be required to work later on Saturdays.  Two Saturdays a month, they worked from 8:30 a.m. to midnight, a 15 ½ hour shift.  On the other two Saturdays, they had to remain working a 21 ½ hour shift, from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. the following morning.

Rina and her husband were typically at the factory 86 to 92 hours a week, while actually working 80 to 86 hours, including 32 to 38 hours of mandatory overtime.
Standard Shift at Northern Fashion
December 2011
(14 to 15 ½ hours a day)

8:30 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.         Work, 4 ½ hours
1:00 p.m. - 2:00 p.m.         Lunch break, 1 hour
2:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.         Work, 5 hours
7:00 p.m. - 7:15 p.m.         Tea break, 15 minutes (Workers receive a piece of bread and a banana.)
7:15 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.        Work, 3 ¼ hours
               - or 11:00 p.m.    Work, 3 ¾
               - or 12:00 a.m.    Work 4 ¼ hours
As of January 2012, production at the factory has slowed down and workers are toiling 12-hour shifts, from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., and sometimes just until 5:00 p.m.

Rina Earned 21 Cents an Hour
(3,553 taka a month.  82 taka = $1.00 U.S.)

21 cents an hour
$1.66 a day (8 hour shift)
$9.94 a week (48 hours)
$43.09 a month
$517.11 a year

Rina's Husband,
a Highly Skilled Senior Sewing Operator
Earned 25 Cents an Hour

(4,250 taka a month)

25 cents an hour
$1.99 a day (8 hours)
$11.96 a week (48 hours)
$51.83 a month
$621.95 a year

In December 2011, Mr. Jamal worked 190 hours of overtime on top of the regular 208 regular hours worked each month.  He was working a grueling 92 hours each week, including 48 regular hours and 44 hours of overtime.  For working a 92-hour shift each week, he earned 10,150 taka ($123.78) for the month and $28.56 a week, which amounts to an average wage of just 31 cents an hour.  It is a grueling and exhausting amount of work for very little wages.


Rough Treatment Is the Rule at Northern Fashion

Rina told us that her supervisor would often “lash” her, whipping the garment across her face while screaming at her to work faster.  Shapla was also physically abused.  The supervisors would suddenly shove her very hard demanding more speed and higher production.

It was very common throughout the factory for women to be slapped for working “too slowly” or “making mistakes.”  Supervisors routinely shout and curse, constantly threatening the workers with firing.

  • Workers are strictly prohibited from speaking during working hours.  If workers are caught, they will be hit.
  • Supervisors constantly shout at the workers to move faster, throwing garments in their faces and beating them.
  • Bathroom breaks are limited to twice a day during the regular eight-hour shift, and can only be taken when permission is given.
  • Workers are threatened and instructed to lie to buyers.  It is common that even twice a month Bangladeshi and foreign buyers visit the Northern Fashion factory.  Workers are forbidden to speak truthfully with the buyers.  Workers must say they do not work excessive hours or night shifts.  Any worker daring to speak the truth will be fired immediately without their back wages.
  • There is a lot of lint dust in the factory, but it is too hot on the shop floor for the perspiring workers to wear even a thin paper face mask.
  • There is no paid sick leave.
  • There is a phony day-care center at Northern Fashion which has been set up to impress the gullible representatives of the European and Australian labels.
  • According to the workers, as of early 2012, there were no codes of conduct posted on the factory walls.
  • No health insurance cards are provided to the workers.
  • Management strictly prohibits even the mention of a union.  If there is even a hint that a group of workers may be thinking of organizing, they will be immediately fired.
  • Workers told us they have no hope and no future as long as they are trapped in the Northern Fashion.

What Must Be Done

European and Australian retailers must not cut and run, pulling their work from the Northern Fashion factory.  This would only further punish the workers, who have already suffered enough.

They must keep their production at Northern Fashion.

Human, women’s and workers’ rights advocates in Europe and Australia should choose respected, independent factory monitors to do a thorough audit of Northern Fashion, with complete access to all factory records and documents.

A detailed and concrete remedial action plan must be enacted to bring Northern Fashion into compliance with Bangladeshi labor law and the core ILO internationally recognized worker rights standards.  The remedial plan must be agreed to by Northern Fashion’s workers, respected Bangladeshi women’s organizations and the labor movement.

Most importantly:  The workers must be made whole again! 

Every woman who was denied her legal, paid maternity leave, back wages, severance pay, vacation pay and Eid festival bonuses must be paid in full!

Workers at the new Northern Fashion factory must have the right to organize an independent union with no interference from management.  It is critical that the workers have the right to collectively bargain.

The European and Australian retailers may have to pay two or three cents more per garment to institute these positive changes and to bring Northern Fashion into full compliance with Bangladeshi labor law and international worker rights standards.

If European and Australian retailers choose to do the right thing, nothing can stop them.  It is in their hands.

“We have been working since 2007 with our key Bangladesh supplier on developing a model ethical factory. We began by working with the factory on productivity and human resources improvements, controlling working hours and increasing pay and bonuses.” (New Look, 2011 Annual Report)

“About 1,000 factories around the world manufacture products for BESTSELLER every day. We are aware of the fact that we can have an important influence – especially on the suppliers who produce a large quantity of our clothes. It is our responsibility to use that influence the best way possible.” (Bestseller. Responsible Production.)

The ILO Convention C183, “Maternity Protection Convention” is covered by Bestseller’s Code of Conduct.


Maternity Leave Laws
Various Selected Countries


Maternity Leave policy

Maternity Pay/Benefits


Update maternity leave with job protection for up to one year.  The mother can generally return to the same position held before she went on maternity leave, or are entitled to another position similar in status and pay.  She must have worked  continuously for the same employer for 12 months.  She can begin leave within 6 weeks of expected birth of child.

Australia instituted the country's first Paid Parental Leave scheme in 2011, providing eligible parents with up to 18 weeks Parental Leave pay at the National Minimum Wage ($589.40 a week before tax in July 2011.  The Australian Government expects to change and further develop this program.)

(Australian Government Family Assistance Office. Paid Parental Leave scheme for working parents.)


Maternity benefit may be paid to the mother from four weeks before the expected date of birth and continues after the birth for 46 weeks, of which the last 32 weeks may be shared between the parents. If one parent returns to part-time work, the leave can be extended proportionally. Parents can choose an extended leave of 40 or 46 weeks (after the 14 weeks) but the benefit is frozen to the amount paid for 32 weeks. 

(European Commission. Your Social Security Rights in Denmark.)

Employees' maternity cash benefit (dagpenge ved fødsel) is calculated on the basis of the hourly wage of the employee with a maximum of DKK 3,760 (€ 504) per week or DKK 102 (€ 14) per hour (37 hours per week), and on the number of hours of work.  For the self-employed, the maternity cash benefit is calculated on the basis of the earnings.


French residents are covered by public health insurance, which is part of the French social security entitlement program.  Women in France take 8 weeks of mandatory, paid maternity leave from work; they are entitled to 16 weeks of paid maternity leave.  This time allotment increases after the woman has had a second child.  Both men and women have the option to take up to three years off from work (unpaid) after having a child, with total job security.  

(European Commission. Your Social Security Rights in France.)

16 weeks benefit at 100%  of pay for first child, rising to 26 weeks at 100% of pay for third child.
The French government also offers citizens a many additional services, including financial supplements for families with three or more children, single parent allowances, low-cost day care.


26 weeks leave, which can be extended by an additional 16 weeks. 

(European Commission. Your Social Security Rights in Ireland.)

Company does not pay maternity benefit, unless negotiated by contract.  Government "Maternity Benefit" covers 80% of average salary earned during second to last tax year (up to certain maximum).

United Kingdom

Most women have the right to take up to 52 weeks' maternity leave.  This does not depend on how long you have worked for your employer.

(Directgov. Pregnancy and maternity rights in the workplace.)


Up to 39 weeks of "Statutory Maternity Pay" (SMP) from employer if woman has worked at least 6 months.  SMP of 90% of weekly gross for first 6 weeks; 90% of gross weekly or £135.45-whichever is lower-for next 33 weeks.

Women who don't qualify for SMP may be entitled to government Maternity Allowance (MA) of  £135.45 a week or 90% of gross weekly-whichever is lower-for 39 weeks.

United States

Employers are required to grant new mothers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave with job security under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.

(United States Department of Labor. The Family and Medical Leave Act.)



In 2000, ILO adopted a new convention on maternity protection. (No. 183 Maternity Protection Convention, 2000)  As of 2010, all 167 countries monitored by the ILO in terms of employment laws have national legislation on Maternity Protection; 63 ILO Member States have adopted at least one of the three ILO maternity protection conventions. As of 2009, 48 per cent of the countries offered at least 14 weeks of maternity leave.