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Uniqlo pledges to improve factory conditions in China

Customers look at clothes on display at a branch store of Japanese clothing giant Uniqlo in Tokyo on Jan 15, 2015.

[TOKYO] Japanese clothing giant Uniqlo on Thursday pledged to improve working conditions at its Chinese suppliers and beef up monitoring following claims that the firms were putting employees at risk.

The chain's parent company Fast Retailing said it was ushering in changes after the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) published a study this week that said factory conditions were unsafe and workers were mistreated.

"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," said a statement issued Thursday.

"Fast Retailing has urged swift action against the factories on the issues identified in the SACOM report, and we will cooperate fully with them to ensure that improvements are made.

"Together with third parties, including auditors and NGOs (non-governmental organisations), we will check progress within one month," it added.

The report accused Uniqlo of buying from two suppliers in China's southern Guangdong province that made employees work long hours for low pay in unsafe conditions.

It pointed out that factories have neglected work safety, with sewage on the factory floor, extremely high temperatures and poor ventilation.

The group, which carried out its investigation between July and November 2014, said the Uniqlo suppliers also had a tough management style and did not allow workers to voice their concerns.

One employee worked up to 14 hours per day, ironing between 600 and 700 shirts, for wages of 0.29 yuan (US$0.05) per shirt, it said.

Fast Retailing said the suppliers had been "instructed" to reduce working hours, improve conditions, and change their management style, including getting rid of fines and other punishments levelled against workers.

The company said it would ask for a "government authority to immediately conduct a thorough check of air quality".

However, Fast Retailing also said its own probe "revealed a number of points which contradict" the rights group's findings, and added that it had little power to boost wages at the factories.

"Fast Retailing will continue with its own independent inspection and plans to engage in dialogue with SACOM to seek further clarification," it said.

A Tokyo-based Fast Retailing spokeswoman said: "It is difficult for us to directly get involved on the level of wages of our partner companies, but we will be requesting appropriate wage levels to our partners." The claims come as the apparel chain pursues an aggressive expansion in a bid to challenge international brands such as Zara, H&M and Gap.