Impoverished Bangladeshi workers claim they have been physically abused and threatened while working in sweatshops used by some of Australia's best-known retailers.
In one case, they were beaten and their representatives were told they would be killed if they protested against working conditions.
The ABC's Four Corners program has travelled to the country's capital Dhaka, where a number of workers revealed big Australian brands including Rivers, Coles, Target and Kmart ordered clothes from factories in Bangladesh that did not meet international standards.
The revelations come just months after international outcry over the tragic building collapse in Rana Plaza, which killed more than 1,000 people and highlighted the plight of the nation's garment workers.
- Retailers Rivers, Coles, Target and Kmart accused of ordering clothes from Bangladeshi factories that flout international standards
- Australian companies refuse to talk to Four Corners
- Garment workers say they were physically and verbally abused
- Coles workers allegedly told they would be killed if they did not 'shut their mouths'
- Bangladesh set to overtake China as world's largest garment producer
- Kmart, Target, Forever New, Cotton On only four Australian companies to sign up to safety accord
As the death toll from the Rana collapse mounted, international retailers distanced themselves from the industry.
The collapse was the latest in a number of fatal factory incidents, but local operators say they are squeezed so hard by retailers they cannot afford to ensure their factories are safe.
While none of the Australian companies would talk to Four Corners, workers in Dhaka described unacceptable conditions that see them work long hours for little pay, sometimes under the threat of abuse if deadlines are not met.
Four Corners reporter Sarah Ferguson shares her impressions of the garment factories in Bangladesh
Workers describe abusive sweatshop conditions
Shahanas and Salma met the Four Corners crew a safe distance from their homes.
They are paid $3 a day working for Australian brand Rivers, and say they are put under intolerable pressure.
"The system is - how many pieces I have delivered in an hour? If I can’t meet it, the abusive language starts," Shahanas said.
"They slap us on the face, on the head and on the back.
"Some workers cry at that time. They cry while they're working," Salma said.
They slap us on the face, on the head and on the back. Some workers cry at that time. They cry while they're working.
Garment worker Salma
Shahanas says her wage is so small she can only go home to her village to see her son once a year.
Four Corners travelled to the outskirts of Dhaka to speak to the manager of Shahanas and Salma’s factory, Eve Dress Shirts.
But the manager denied making clothes for Rivers.
According to Shahanas, when foreign buyers visit the factory the workers are forbidden to speak to them.
Four Corners asked Rivers, which has more than 150 stores and an online business in Australia, about their relationship with Eve Dress Shirts, but they did not respond.
Workers told to shut up or be killed
Workers at the Rosita factory, which made clothes for Coles, paid its workers 22 cents per hour.
The US-based Institute of Global labour and Human Rights says it learnt about the widespread abuse of workers at the Rosita factory in 2012.
The organisation's spokesman, Charles Kernaghan, says when workers asked about their rights, the company turned on them – beating workers and firing 300.
He says the workers' representatives were told they would be killed if they did not "shut their mouths".
The ABC has not verified the allegations.
"We found out that the Rosita and Megatex was owned by South Ocean, which is the largest Chinese manufacturer of sweaters in the world and they were cheating the workers in every single way imaginable," Mr Kernaghan said.
Workers are being arrested, beaten, tortured, threatened with sexual harassment, just on and on and on. This was a miserable sweatshop.
Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights spokesman Charles Kernaghan
"Coles got back to us saying that as far as they know everything is fine, everything is perfect.
"Meanwhile, workers are being arrested, beaten, tortured, threatened with sexual harassment, just on and on and on. This was a miserable sweatshop.
"It doesn't speak well of Coles; that's for sure. I mean this is just one of those labels which doesn't care, and they will always turn their back on the workers.
"They’ll always come forward with these phony codes of conduct that are never implemented."
After the publication of the US institute's report, Coles moved its operations elsewhere.
In a statement, Coles said it ceased its relationship with Rosita after it was unable to carry out an independent audit of the factory.
"Coles ordered a small amount of Mix knitwear from Rosita Knitwear in 2011," the statement said.
"The Rosita factory had been audited to international standards earlier that year and no significant issues were identified.
"Following allegations made against the factory in March 2012, Coles attempted to re-audit the factory using independent ethical auditors but was unable to gain access because the management closed the factory.
"As we could not satisfy ourselves that the factory was operating to the standards we expect under our global ethical sourcing policy, no further orders were placed with Rosita."
Coles says it has a contract with a Bangladesh supplier for an order of clothing but has "no plans to source any further product from the country".
Coles refused Four Corners' request for an interview.
Big Australian businesses fly under the radar
But there are other examples of big Australian companies who have avoided scrutiny of their business, taking advantage of Bangladesh's remoteness and lack of transparency to market cheap clothes.
There are many factories in Dhaka working for Australian brands that do not meet international standards, despite these companies' own ethical sourcing policies.
Centex Ltd is part of a large group of factories that produces for Target.
According to Centex executive director Anwarul Azim Zahid, only a few buyers take safety compliance seriously.
"If proper prices are paid, this money can be invested in proper constructions, proper buildings, proper wages and proper working environments," he said.
And when Kmart went into business with Ratul Ratul, a recent audit of the company had found the workers did not earn a living wage and there were problems with child labour.
Four Corners asked management if they could visit the factory, but were refused.
But photos taken inside the factory and obtained by Four Corners show Kmart products currently for sale in stores in Australia.
The ABC was referred to Kmart's public relations in Sydney.
Kmart used the factory for three years and only now are they planning to drop it as a supplier.
At Big Boss, clothes are produced for Cotton On and Big W.
Big Boss shares the building with other factories and a large number of shops and food stalls. The owner told Four Corners that it is possible to find a better factory than his, with no subcontracting and better conditions.
But to get that, you have to pay more.
Australian shoppers say they want change
Bangladesh's clothing production has quadrupled in the past decade and within the next few years it will overtake China as the world's largest garment producer.
European and US retailers have driven the boom and Australian retailers have joined the rush.
Garment production for Australian companies in Bangladesh has increased 1,500 per cent since 2008.
But according to a survey conducted by not-for-profit aid organisation Oxfam, almost 70 per cent of Australians would pay more for their clothes if it meant workers were given an acceptable wage and worked in safe factories.
In addition, 84 per cent of Australians who took part in the survey say they want Australian companies to sign onto an accord to ensure safety standards are improved in Bangladeshi factories.
Kmart, Target, Forever New and Cotton On have signed onto the safety accord, but Big W is yet to do so.
Oxfam Australia chief Helen Szoke says companies need to be more transparent about where their garments are produced.
"European and American companies are already being transparent about where their garments are produced so why is it different for Australian companies, why can’t they do the same?" she said.
"The devastation caused by the factory collapse has prompted many Australians to think twice about where their clothes come from.
"Our research shows consumers want Australian retailers to prevent further tragedies by taking greater responsibility and looking after the thousands of workers who make the clothes we wear every day."
Meanwhile the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors (ACSI) has released a report on the sourcing patterns of 34 Australian companies.
The report found that of the 34 companies investigated, 62 per cent did not have a publicly available policy addressing labour and human rights policy for its supply chain.
Only one-third had child and forced labour policies.
"Current disclosure levels by Australian companies, especially those in highly-exposed industries like retail clothing and food, are simply not good enough," ACSI chief Ann Byrne said in a statement.
Watch the full Four Corners program tonight on ABC1 at 8:30pm.