Undercover filming of workers at the TNS factory
By Navdip Dhariwal
Factory workers making clothes destined for fashion chain Primark work up to 12 hours a day for £3.50 an hour, an undercover BBC investigation has found.
Supplier TNS Knitwear was also found to be employing illegal workers in poor conditions at its Manchester factory.
TNS has denied all the claims. Primark says it is "extremely concerned" and is carrying out its own investigation.
Primark is best known for its cheap fashion clothing and bucked the trend on Britain's high street last year to make a £233m profit.
On its website, it claims to deliver fast fashion without breaking its ethical code or exploiting its workers, but the BBC has uncovered evidence that shows some of its manufacturers are doing so.
In a statement, the company said: "The apparent practices shown in today's BBC News broadcasts are a matter of great concern."
Primark said its ethical business practices were of great importance and "it works hard to ensure its many suppliers conform to the highest standards".
TNS Knitwear Ltd, based in a former Victorian mill in Manchester, supplies clothing to several high street fashion chains.
It is one of Primark's biggest UK suppliers of knitwear, handling hundreds of thousands of garments for the company a year.
A BBC reporter, who is a non-UK national, applied for a job with the company and was not asked about her right to work.
She was taken on by the boss, Zahid Sarwar, without even being asked her name, and given a job packing Primark knitwear.
While working, she discovered an intense work culture where employees admitted to being under pressure to meet orders, two-thirds of them for Primark.
Many in her section were putting in 12-hour days, seven days a week, for just over half the minimum wage.
By law, workers should be paid £5.73 an hour and Primark's own code of conduct promises workers a living wage.
But Zahid Sarwar, the co-owner of TNS Knitwear, is filmed on a secret camera telling our reporter she would get £3.50 an hour.
Our reporter also found there was no heating in that area, and staff worked in their coats in bitterly cold temperatures.
An unrepaired toilet meant workers of both sexes were sharing one set of toilets.
One Afghan man, working alongside our reporter, said he was an asylum seeker and had been working illegally in the country for three years.
Primark says it is very concerned about the allegations
He said: "The management asked me if my status should be declared - I said 'No'.
Our reporter asked: "Ok, so your asylum case is under progress?"
He replied: "Yes, I haven't got asylum yet."
Our reporter also spoke to two other factory workers who admitted breaking the law. One man from Pakistan said his visa expired eight years ago.
Employers who take on illegal workers can face fines of up to £10,000 per person under the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act.
Our reporter was also told others working legally were cheating the benefits system by claiming sickness benefits while working at TNS Knitwear.
At the end of a week's work, our undercover reporter received her wages cash in hand, without any paperwork.
In a statement, TNS Knitwear insisted all the allegations were untrue and said some were fabricated.
TNS Knitwear delivers 20,000 garments a week to Primark, but it farms out some work to smaller Manchester factories, where the BBC found conditions were even worse.
Primark said its suppliers did not have the right to subcontract work. But our reporter got a job at Fashion Waves sewing labels onto Primark clothes.
Reporter's account of factory work
Workers admitted on secret camera they were working illegally - claims denied by Fashion Waves.
One of the machinists told our reporter on camera how a day earlier the boss said there was an immigration raid, prompting people to run away.
She said: "Had I been caught I would have been in serious trouble because my asylum case is ongoing. I don't have the right to work."
Primark's code of conduct says its clothes should be made in safe and hygienic conditions.
But at Fashion Waves, our reporter found corridors were routinely blocked with boxes and the kitchen was so dirty workers were forced to eat their lunch sitting on piles of Primark clothes.
On one occasion, our reporter found herself trapped in the women's toilets after boxes fell in front of the door.
Fashion Waves owner, Zaheer Mahmood, also broke the law by paying our reporter £3 an hour - a claim the company denies.
In a statement, Fashion Waves said: "We do not have any illegal employees in our firm in best of my knowledge."
The BBC bought a £10 cardigan from one of Primark's Manchester stores in the same colour and style with the same code as the one our reporter was working on at Fashion Waves.
Neil Kearney, of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers' Federation, said the investigation findings were a "total scandal".
"This is the importation of third world working conditions into Europe and in this case into the UK," he added.
"There's no such thing as cheap clothing; somebody has to pay and in this case it's the workers in Manchester who pay."
Last year, Primark fired three Indian suppliers after a six-month BBC Panorama investigation found the suppliers had used child labour to carry out embroidery and sequin work.
Of the latest claims, Primark said it was "extremely concerned about the very serious allegations" and is conducting its own investigation.
It added: "Primark had TNS independently audited on 28 April and 10 December 2008 and had a strict... programme in place in relation to identified breaches of its code of conduct."
"Primark apologises for the harm and distress to the innocent employees of both TNS and TNS' sub-contractor Fashion Wave"
Update July 2011: This story has been edited following a
recent ruling by the BBC Trust