Five former employees of a flagship Gucci store in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, recently lodged complaints against "inhuman" working conditions in the company.
In an open letter, the five revealed that the store imposes about 100 rules regulating employee behavior, many of which they considered harsh and inappropriate.
These rules include having to ask permission before drinking water or using the toilet and not being allowed to spend more than five minutes in the restroom.
The five also complained about working long hours without payment, saying that they have to stand for more than 14 hours a day in the store. This rule even applies to pregnant employees, a female employee surnamed He, who was one of the letter's authors, told the Global Times Saturday.
"Two of my former colleagues had to have abortions because we all had to stand so long each day. They both left the company without receiving any compensation," said He.
"Many of us ended up with various occupational diseases as a result of these inhuman rules. I have been suffering from stomach and urinary system illnesses," she said, adding that after 12 hours of serving customers, they had to work yet more hours counting products both in the store and in warehouses.
In response, Gucci's China office said the company has always paid close attention to employee welfare, is investigating the complaints and will deal with the problems properly as soon as possible, the Guangdong-based New Express newspaper reported Saturday.
Citing a statement from Gucci China, the paper also reported that the company's HR department had rejected the five former employees' claims for salary money in arrears.
The HR bureau of Shenzhen's Luohu District told the paper that they cannot order Gucci to pay the alleged arrears because the two sides disagree on how to calculate overtime payment.
A staff member at the Luohu HR bureau told the Global Times on condition of anonymity that they had mediated after receiving the complaints and said labor arbitration was the only way to solve the dispute.
Gucci's China branch was not available for comments Saturday and the complaints could not be verified with the Shenzhen flagship store by press time.
The store management never gave its employees a discount card for Gucci products, a common perk for fashion store employees, according to He.
"When we asked about this, the management replied that a discount card would be pointless as I and my colleagues are too poor to afford Gucci things," He said.
A former manager at Gucci's Beijing office who only gave her name as Gan admitted that mistreatment of employees is rife at all levels in the brand's mainland stores.
"These problems are not associated with the brand. Rather, they were caused by the mismanagement of Gucci's China branch," Gan told the Global Times.
Yang Qianwu, the lawyer representing He and the other four, told the Global Times that partial evidence has been collected for the arbitration and each of the five former employees is demanding an average of 100,000 yuan ($15,500) in overtime wages during their more than two years of working at the store.
"The store has been treating employees unfairly and has shunned its responsibilities. Such acts will undermine the image of Gucci, a renowned luxury brand," Yang said.
Sweatshops and harsh working conditions have persisted in China's fast-developing regions, in some cases triggering protests.
Earlier this year, Apple was accused by dozens of Chinese environmental groups of neglecting work safety standards and labor abuses among its mainland subcontractors.
A slew of suicides and suicide attempts have taken place at plants belonging to the big Apple contractor Foxconn over the past two years, with workers at the factory claiming that they were treated badly.
In 2009, factories supplying Walmart were also accused of violating its ethical standards and forcing mainland workers to operate in sweatshop-like conditions.
Lin Xinqi, a professor at the School of Labor and Human Resources at Renmin University of China, said that Chinese laborers are in a comparatively vulnerable position and need support from the authorities and labor unions in disputes.
"It's hard for scattered individuals to fight for their rights against more powerful employers. Local authorities are obliged to step in to solve the dispute," Lin told the Global Times.
Lin noted that labor disputes have increased in China along with the ballooning economy and said local governments need to find a balance between people's basic rights and economic development.