Workers in Mauritius took to the streets in October, demanding decent work. Photo credit: IndustriAll

Workers in Mauritius took to the streets in October, demanding decent work. Photo credit: IndustriAll

Upmarket UK fashion retailer Whistles has been criticised after T-shirts bearing the slogan 'This is what a feminist looks like' were said to be manufactured in “sweatshop” conditions in Mauritius.

A newspaper exposé at the weekend claimed women workers at Compagnie Mauricienne de Textile (CMT) were earning US$1 an hour and sleeping 16 to a room in bunk beds.

Whistles removed the T-shirts while it investigated the claims, but they are going back on sale today (5 November), a spokesperson said. 

An ethical audit of the factory conducted by the retailer last month found all workers were paid above the government-mandated minimum wage and that pay is increased in proportion to the skills of employees and their duration of employment.

"We are taking this opportunity to undertake additional reviews of all our suppliers," Whistles said in a statement. 

Although the factory complied with legal standards, activists at Labour Behind the Label are urging a "complete rethink" on the way ethical auditing is carried out.

"Due to global buying and the race to the bottom on price and conditions, country governments keep wages and rights suppressed in order to attract export buyers," said policy coordinator Anna McMullen. "So when 'ethical audits' measure whether factories are compliant, all that is outputted are tick boxes that measure wages and conditions."

Global union IndustriAll adds that despite working six days a week, garment workers will earn just MUR6,000 (US$190) per month. It adds they are bound by law to work 45 hours per week plus compulsory overtime of ten hours per week. 

An estimated 65,000 people work in the Mauritius textile sector, of which around 15,000 are migrants. CMT employs 10,000 workers, of which many are migrants.

Unions in the country are campaigning for a national minimum wage of MUR9,000 (US$284) a month for all workers. But IndustriAll says this is "way below" the estimated monthly living wage of MUR14,500 (US$458).

Minimum wage increases in Mauritius are made at the discretion of the Labour Minister and have not been updated in most industries for many years, the union says.