London: They are the T-shirts designed to make a political statement about women’s rights — but the female workers making them are paid just 62p an hour in an Indian Ocean `sweatshop’.
Between shifts women making garments emblazoned with the slogan `This is what a feminist looks like’ sleep in spartan dormitories, 16 to a room.
And critics say the low wages and long hours at the Mauritian factories amount to exploitation.
The shirts have been worn by Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Harriet Harman, all keen to display their feminist credentials — even though the Deputy Prime Minister last night admitted he had `no idea’ where the garments were made.
But The Mail on Sunday has toured a factory producing the T-shirts, where workers earn just 6,000 rupees a month — equivalent to £120 (Dh704).
The figure is just a quarter of the country’s average monthly wage, and around half of what a waiter earns. Each `feminist’ T-shirt costs just £9 to make, but high street chain Whistles sells them for £45 each — a figure it would take the women a week and a half to earn.
The retailer promised an urgent investigation last night in the wake of the Mail on Sunday expose.
At one factory visited by The Mail on Sunday, a female worker said: `How can this T-shirt be a symbol of feminism when we do not see ourselves as feminists? We see ourselves as trapped.’
An official from factory owner Compagnie Mauricienne de Textile (CMT) told us he `would not be happy’ if the women left the work camp during the week in case they turned up for work `hung-over’.
Whistles, whose customers include the Duchess of Cambridge, is selling the T-shirts in aid of women’s activism group The Fawcett Society — which receives all profits. The campaign is backed by fashion magazine Elle.
Deputy Labour Leader Harriet Harman wore a shirt carrying the slogan on the front bench of the Commons during Prime Minister’s questions last week, while the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders proudly posed for photographs in Elle’s `feminism issue’ in the T-shirts.
Fayzal Ally Beegun, president of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Union said: `The workers in this factory are treated very poorly and the fact that politicians in England are making a statement using these sweatshop T-shirts is appalling.
`It would take a woman working in the factory nearly two weeks just to buy one shirt. What is feminist about that? These women have nothing in this world. They are paid a pittance and any money they do receive they send back home.
`They work very long hours and have no lives other than their work. They are on four-year contracts that mean they don’t get to see their families in that time. What kind of existence is it when you are sharing your bedroom with 15 other women?
`The women have no careers or even the most basic of opportunities. This is not what feminism is supposed to be.’
Celebrities pictured wearing the feminist T-shirt in Elle magazine include Benedict Cumberbatch, Tinie Tempah, Eddie Izzard, Richard E Grant and Simon Pegg.
On Saturday a reporter and a photographer from The Mail on Sunday were given a guided tour of CMT’s factory in La Tour Koenig, north Mauritius. As managing director Francois Woo showed around the sleeping quarters he said: `All of our dormitories are identical. There are 16 beds in each room. They are based on university dormitories in China. They don’t need a lot of room because they only use them for sleep.’
He said that the plant is one of six across the island where living conditions and wages are identical.
He could not say at which factory the Whistles T-shirts were made, but confirmed they made 300 at a cost of £9. `The machinists at our factories made the feminist T-shirt for Whistles’ he said, adding: `All the machinists earn 6,000 rupees.’
Woo instructed workers to smile as the photographer took pictures of them on the shop floor.
The tour was delayed when we asked to view the women’s accommodation block. Staff made several phone calls and 30 minutes later we were allowed to view the bedrooms.