Page last updated at 18:54 GMT, Monday, 12 January 2009

My life at the Primark suppliers

As part of a BBC News investigation into fashion chain Primark, an undercover reporter got a job with two of its suppliers. Here is her account of her time in the factories.

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BBC's undercover reporter describes conditions

"I'm feeling very cold. My feet are freezing," said a shivering worker in one of the units of TNS Knitwear where workers were forced to pack clothes in the biting cold in their coats because there was no heating.

The boss didn't seem too sympathetic. "Work faster and you'll automatically feel warm," he said.

"You'll feel bad now but with time you, like us, will learn to suffer in silence," I was told by other workers.

When I started the undercover investigation I knew I might come across poor working conditions, but what I saw left me shocked and speechless.

After just one day working at TNS Knitwear, I was exhausted. My legs ached and my back hurt. I don't know how the other workers coped.

The men in the factory put in much longer hours than I did - standing at packing tables for 12 hours a day, seven days a week being paid 3 to 3.50 an hour.

'Work more'

There was definitely a culture in the factory that if you didn't put the hours in, then you were surplus to requirements.

One worker told me that he'd worked for seven months without a day off. Another worker told me he'd worked for four months continuously.

I was warned by a fellow worker that if I didn't work long hours, then it would only be a matter of time before the boss sacked me.

"Don't take days off... work more hours. Either work eight to eight, or nine to eight at least. Then he'll be happy," he said.

Ear-splitting noise from the machines made it difficult to hear what the worker standing next to me was saying and workers had to resort to shouting in order to be heard. When I asked about earplugs, workers were amazed and laughed.

My legs went numb and I came back home and cried aloud, thinking even hell couldn't be worse than this
Worker at Primark supplier

While I was working undercover there, an 'inspector' came to visit the factory and rumours started to spread that she was from Primark.

Workers were told to mop the floors and be on their best behaviour. A selection of workers were called over to talk to her.

One worker came back and told me that he had lied to her - saying he was paid the national minimum wage, and working 40 hours a week with weekends off.

In reality, it was a very different story. "We work 12 hours, harder than donkeys, seven days a week. Even on Eid, the boss says 'come to work'," he said.

He said that if she were to know the truth, the inspector would wonder whether human beings worked there, or animals.

In fact, the visitor was from an independent company auditing TNS's ethical standards for Primark.

Doors blocked

In Fashion Waves, another factory I was undercover in, workers did not have a decent place to eat food.

The kitchen was cramped with boxes, and workers would not eat there because it was never cleaned and they worried that boxes would fall on them.

Women workers initially were forced to use the gents' toilet as the ladies' toilet was being used as a storeroom. In fact, every spare place was stacked with boxes. Doorways and corridors were routinely blocked.

I have never seen such chaos. We were penned in at our machines, surrounded by knitwear and boxes.

When a new order appeared, one worker suggested that they pile the knitwear on the top of her head because it was the only space left.

After two weeks of the ladies' loo being used a storeroom, the boss finally got around to clearing it out. But it didn't have a lock. Instead, we were told to use a two pence coin to lock and unlock the door.

He had cleverly invented a way to save spending 5 on the lock for ladies toilet. The factory was so cramped that I even got trapped in the ladies' loo after boxes fell against the door. The boss had to help me out.

'Life survived'

Life for these workers was not lived, but survived. Life consisted of work, food and sleep, seven days a week. Despite living in Manchester for many years, some only knew the roads which led them from their houses to the factory.

Life meant getting up at 6am, getting ready, cooking food, going to work and toiling there from 8am to 8pm and then coming back home, cooking food again and then going to sleep.

"My legs went numb and I came back home and cried aloud, thinking even hell couldn't be worse than this," a worker told me, remembering his first day working in this back-street factory.

He was an illegal worker, like many others in the knitwear industries of Manchester who come from Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

When you suffer for long enough, you get used to it - that's what I saw had happened to workers in TNS and Fashion Waves.

Looking at the standard of working conditions, I couldn't help wondering whether I was undercover in the UK making knitwear for Primark, or in a third world country.

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