An undercover investigation by Channel 4 Dispatches claims workers at factories that supplied some of the UK's most popular fashion brands were paid less than the national minimum wage.
The documentary, which is to be broadcast on Monday at 8pm, alleges workers were, in some instances, paid £3–£3.50 per hour at three Leicester-based factories: Fashion Square, United Creations, and a third that has not been named.
It raises fresh concerns about the human cost and working conditions involved in delivering cheap fashion online and on the high street.
An undercover reporter who got a job at Fashion Square putting bar codes and labels on clothes for supply to River Island said he was told by a manager at the factory that he would not be paid the minimum wage.
Since October 2016, the minimum wage for an 18-year-old is £5.55, rising to £6.95 for those over 21 and £7.20 for over-25s.
"You won’t get that here. That’s what I’m telling you," the programme will show the manager saying. "We don’t get paid much for our clothes, and we need to compete with China and Bangladesh. They can get it cheap there. How will they get it made cheaper here? If we pay everyone £10 or £6 then we will make a loss."
The reporter also went undercover at an unnamed factory making jumpers destined to be sold at New Look for £3.50 per hour. Dispatches claims the factory was subcontracted by TS Knitwear, an official supplier of New Look.
The third factory, United Creations, is said to have paid the reporter £3.25 per hour. His tasks included packaging a jacket for Boohoo and applying zips to Missguided dresses, the film is expected to show.
All three factories denied to Dispatches that they paid less than the minimum wage.
The brands involved said they took the allegations seriously. Boohoo said in a statement it has "demanding" policies in place for suppliers and will now do “regular unannounced audits".
A spokesperson said they were unaware United Creations was carrying out work for the company and that representatives from Boohoo visited the factory as soon as they were alerted to "assist them in [raising] the standard of their safety procedures and ensuring that they pay at least the minimum wage".
Missguided said it takes the allegations "very seriously and [demands] the highest standards of safety, working conditions and pay from all of our suppliers and subcontractors".
"We are committed to achieving the standards set by the Ethical Trading Initiative and conduct regular audits and spot-checks of our supply chain," the company said. "We have begun an internal investigation … we will also ensure these matters are addressed urgently by the supplier in the best interests of the workers."
New Look said it had terminated its contract with TS Knitwear and that the company had subcontracted its order without consent. "We have terminated our relationship with TS Knitwear with immediate effect ... and will be working closely with the business to support all its workers who will be affected," a spokesperson said.
TS Knitwear said it has “clear ethical guidelines” and that due to “an unusually large volume” of orders it had outsourced some production but was “dismayed” to learn about the findings of the investigation.
River Island said Fashion Square had been removed from its approved factory list in February 2016 and said suppliers were told not to use the company. "Sub-contracting without River Island’s approval is a serious breach of our terms and conditions,” a spokesperson said.
BuzzFeed News has attempted to contact Fashion Square for comment.