TOKYO — Japanese fashion giant Fast Retailing Co. is tightening controls on treatment of workers at key suppliers' factories in China following complaints by labor rights groups that highlight the pressures prevailing in the highly competitive low-cost garment industry.
Members of two labor rights groups said Friday they are planning meetings next week with representatives of the company, which makes popular Uniqlo brand clothing.
"We believe that Uniqlo has a lot of suppliers in China. These two factories are just the starting point of our campaign," said Alexandra Chan, a project officer of the Hong Kong-based labor monitoring group Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, or SACOM.
Fast Retailing issued a statement Thursday saying it would take action to ensure fair payment and accounting of working hours, curb excess overtime and improve conditions on factory floors of its suppliers in response to the complaints based on undercover investigations by SACOM.
SACOM said it found that workers at two suppliers in southern China were working between 112 hours and 134 hours of overtime a month, on top of 11-12 hours a day with only a few days off a month, and were being underpaid, based on Chinese labor laws. Workers were not wearing required protective gear and factory temperatures exceeded 38 Celsius (100 Fahrenheit) at times, the report said. It cited various hazardous conditions, including chemical-laden wastewater on the factory floors.
In a statement, Fast Retailing said its own investigation had corroborated some of those complaints.
"Respecting human rights and ensuring appropriate working conditions for the workers of our production partners are top priorities for Fast Retailing, and in this we are completely aligned with SACOM," Yukihiro Nitta, the company's executive officer responsible for corporate social responsibility, said in the statement.
It said Fast Retailing would step up monitoring at the factories, including those that supply textiles to its direct suppliers.
Chan welcomed the response.
"We will keep closely monitoring the suppliers of Uniqlo in China and of course we will see the progress of these two factories that we investigated this time," she said.
Overall, conditions at Chinese factories have been improving as global brands move to protect their corporate reputations, Chan said.
"Uniqlo is an international brand, not just a Japanese brand," she said. "I don't think Uniqlo can tolerate defects in its clothing. I think Uniqlo should have high standards for its factory conditions as well."
Kazuko Ito, a lawyer with the Tokyo-based group Human Rights Now, said her organization had found the same situation as SACOM outlined, and hoped to see Uniqlo follow through with improvements.
But intense competition and demand in Japan and other major markets for cheap but stylish clothing means that most suppliers strain to cut costs. As wages rise in China, manufacturers are shifting to lower cost locations such as Bangladesh and Vietnam, adding to those pressures.
"The root cause of the problem is low-cost competition worldwide," said Ito. "Uniqlo is a champion of this market, especially in the garment industry. But many other companies might have this problem."
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