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My sister-in-law is dead because of ‘abuse and torture’ at Under Armour factory

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A young woman who killed herself while working at a factory making clothes for major fashion brands had been “tortured” by her supervisor, a family member has claimed.

Under Armour, Columbia and American Eagle have launched an independent investigation into the suicide of Tureza Akter, revealed by i.

The 21-year-old Bangladeshi migrant worker died in Jordan in November at the Fine Apparel plant. Sources claim that bullying and sexual harassment is common there, with labourers often being fined, having passports withheld, and working 16-hour days without weekends.

British politicians say the case highlights the need for stronger laws in the UK to protect the 27.6 million workers estimated by the United Nations to be in forced labour around the world, often in the supply chains of Western companies.

Ms Akter’s sister-in-law, Ismu, spoke to her relative shortly before the worker took her own life in her dormitory. Ismu said Ms Akter suffered “abuse” during her month at the factory.

Tureza Akter’s parents, Momtaj, left, and Jahangir are grieving for their daughter (Photo: i investigation)

Ms Akter’s supervisor “tortured her and abused her a lot”, and “slapped her with a pipe”, Ismu said.

“Tureza used to bear the abuse and cry a lot” during their phonecalls, she added. Ms Akter wanted to complain but worried that “no one would listen”.

Ms Akter’s relative spoke to i via a translator from the Awaj Foundation, a Bangladeshi organisation campaigning to improve rights and conditions for garment workers.

The factory’s owner, Jordanian manufacturer Needle Craft, says its team “recognise the severity of these allegations” and are working to “prevent any potential future occurrences”.

The Fine Apparel factory is located in the city of Zarqa, about 10 miles outside the capital, Amman (Photo: YouTube / i investigation)
The Fine Apparel factory is located in the city of Zarqa, about 10 miles outside the capital, Amman (Photo: YouTube /i investigation)

‘No one should die like that’

On the day that Ms Akter died, she told Ismu that she was ill and had gone back to her dormitory early.

“Since she couldn’t work, the leader beat her again… and abused her a lot,” her sister-in-law claimed. When she advised Ms Akter on the phone to go the police, she “remained silent”.

Ms Akter’s colleagues found her body later that day.

Ismu said: “I am 100 per cent sure that she died because of her leader’s torture… Had she not been treated so badly, she would not have died and would not have thought of dying.

“No one should die like that. I want to tell the buyers and garment owners that the treatment… should not be [suffered] by any other worker in that factory.”

Needle Craft has pledged to continue paying Ms Akter’s salary to her family for two years, following her “tragic” death. But her sister-in-law said this was not sufficient.

“Tureza’s family is very poor,” she explained. “Tureza used to run her family. After her death, her family has become helpless. How can they live with so many people?”

Stronger protections needed

The senior Labour MP Liam Byrne, chair of the Commons Business Committee, said i‘s “supremely important story” on Tureza Akter’s death highlights the need for stronger UK laws to “toughen up supply chain governance”.

Mr Byrne said the case served as “fresh evidence” why the Government’s failure to present its Modern Slavery Bill before Parliament was “such a mistake”. The Home Office says it continues “to examine the case and timing for legislative changes”.

Lola Young, a crossbench peer who founded the all-party parliamentary group on ethics and sustainability in fashion, said the investigation “both dismays and galvanises at the same time”.

She has put forward a private members’ bill which would include a “duty to prevent human rights and environmental harms” in firms’ global supply chains by conducting due diligence assessments.

This bill, which is awaiting its second reading in Parliament, could be enforced by criminal prosecutions.

Baroness Young said: “I’m tired of reading how these brands supposedly ‘take such allegations seriously’, or think that sending in auditors to inspect working conditions is an effective way of monitoring abusive situations.”

Online photos show Under Armour clothes being produced by workers at Fine Apparel (Photos: Google Maps)
Online photos show Under Armour clothes being produced by workers at Fine Apparel (Photos: Google Maps)

Calls for more action

Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium, joined calls for the factory to take more action, together with Under Armour, Columbia and American Eagle.

He said: “There is a great deal of cruelty toward workers in brands’ global supply chains, in Jordan and elsewhere. But the connection i is reporting, between a culture of workplace abuse and a worker’s decision to end her life, is beyond egregious.”

Asked what action should be taken, Mr Nova said: “For starters, there should be appropriate compensation for the family of Tureza Akter, not the pittance the factory is reportedly paying but far more; the termination of any managers and supervisors who have treated workers abusively or tolerated the abuses, up to the most senior levels; and thorough documentation of all unpaid wages and deliver of full back pay.”

Jay Kerr of the British campaign group No Sweat called for “radical solutions” to problems in the clothing industry. “For anyone who thought sweatshops were a thing of the past, the horrific story behind Tureza Akter’s tragic suicide is a reminder that this is far from the case,” he said. “i‘s detailed exposé of situation in Jordan shows that major brands have failed to fix the problem.”

Ayesha Barenblat, CEO of Remake which lobbies for improved conditions for garment workers, said the “preventable and heartbreaking death” of Ms Akter appearsed to be “an unfortunately all-too-familiar case of modern day slavery”.

She added: “Remedial audit actions as pledged by the implicated brands is simply greenwashing and window dressing. We instead call on Under Armour, American Eagle and Columbia to enter a binding agreement with their supplier.”

Christie Miedema, an activist with the Clean Clothes Campaign, was upset but not surprised by the “harrowing” story. She said: “Despite fine words about responsibility and ethics on practically every brand’s website, the industry continues to be based on a ‘race to the bottom’ logic, where impossibly low prices are the norm and cause a squeeze on wages and workers’ rights. In its most extreme form this leads to forced labour.”

A Needle Craft promotional video shows Under Armour clothes being made by its workers (Photos: YouTube / i investigation)
A Needle Craft promotional video shows Under Armour clothes being made by its workers (Photos: YouTube /i investigation)

A Needle Craft manager said the team was “profoundly saddened” by Ms Akter’s death and offered its “deepest sympathies to the family and loved ones”.

The management were determined “to foster a safe, respectful, and supportive environment for everyone, free from fear and intimidation”, he added.

He said workers’ passports were only retained for visa renewals. To improve standards, the firm has introduced enhanced supervisor training, recruiting welfare officers and psychologists.

Under Armour has said it is “deeply concerned by the alarming reports” emerging from Fine Apparel, which are “wholly inconsistent” with its required standards. Stating that all suppliers and subcontractors must “treat employees legally, ethically, and fairly”, it added: “We are resolute in our commitment to take decisive action.”

Columbia said Ms Akter’s “tragic” death was “devastating” for her family and colleagues. Alleged violations of its code of conduct “cannot be tolerated” and it is working on a “remediation plan”, it added.

American Eagle has said it takes the allegations “very seriously”. It engaged with Needle Craft “immediately” in November to “implement remedial actions”, and is “actively monitoring” these via onsite visits.

To receive mental health support, call Samaritans on 116 123

@robhastings

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