Serious allegations about the treatment of workers at a clothing supplier to many of Britain's leading high street names have come to light in an investigation by The Observer.
Retailers including Next, Debenhams and brands owned by Philip Green including BHS, Wallis and Dorothy Perkins buy tens of thousands of items a month from the Fortune Garment and Woollen Knitting Factory about 20 miles outside the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.
The factory has been judged among the worst of those inspected in Cambodia by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on a host of health and safety issues, as well as its treatment of trade union activity.
The revelations will be uncomfortable to Green, who is the most powerful force in British retailing and last year wrote himself a £1bn dividend cheque.
Campaign group Labour Behind the Label claims that despite corresponding with it since July last year, there is little evidence that Arcadia, Green's company, has engaged in changing conditions at Fortune. Green disputes this, however, and says that according to an audit produced for its clients by Bureau Veritas just 10 days ago, there are no serious problems at the factory.
The situation illustrates the difficulty in improving work conditions in developing countries. Debenhams says that for the past year it has been working with other big retailers to improve conditions at the factory. It audited the site in December and thought issues were resolved. It was aware last month of new problems and was now working to resolve them.
In a statement, Next said: 'We started using this factory in June 2003 and were first made aware in June 2005 of ... allegations ... and have actively worked with the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) and other retailers in investigating these and setting about improving working conditions in the factory. Audits have been carried out by our Code of Practice team in August 2005 and ... recommendations were made and we understand that the majority of those have been implemented.
'We are now in receipt of a letter from Labour Behind the Label with further allegations and in the light of this we are sending our Code of Practice team to Cambodia next week and have instigated further collaboration with the ETI.'
In September 2002, monitoring by the ILO, a United Nations agency, looked at conditions in 65 Cambodian factories, including Fortune. More violations were detected at Fortune than at almost any other company. In 2004, Fortune had one of the worst records for implementing ILO recommendations.
Fortune factory says that since the ILO report in 2002 it has dealt with noise and ventilation. But the ILO's inspection in August last year showed that the factory had made little improvement on noise, ventilation and sick pay. Fortune has also clamped down on union activity. Next month, workers there are due to strike over a worker dismissed for what they believe to be his union activism.
Fortune's spokesman says the factory abides by local law and has sacked workers only with a court's authorisation. He adds that sick pay is given and salaries are above the legal requirement.
Often companies pull out when poor working conditions are exposed. Martin Hearson, Labour Behind the Label's campaign co-ordinator, suggests that this is the wrong approach: 'Companies like Arcadia could engage with the factory management, workers' representatives and the other companies involved to address the workers' complaints.'
When The Observer visited the factory last week, the vast majority of the 30 workers interviewed said conditions in the factory were poor. Most workers, they said, were in rooms with up to 600 others. 'They use fans but it's still very hot because there are not enough fans and only two doors, which are kept closed,' said Nut Chenda, a female worker.
'In the washing room there are a lot of chemicals and the ceiling is not high so it gets very hot and stuffy,' said one woman. 'We are given masks but they are not good enough and we often suffer the effects of chemical inhalation.'
Poeun Kao, secretary-general of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers, described Fortune as 'the worst factory we've come across'. 'The [union] crackdown began in late 2004 and so far 200 people have been dismissed.'
Fortune, which employs 2,500, says the sample of 30 workers we spoke to was small. It adds: 'We are doing everything to give a fair and happy working environment to our employees.'
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