Tuesday, June 17, 2008


So some news that is not very surprising: turns out Primark was working with suppliers in South India that used child labour. Also not surprising is Primark's outrage at having been deceived “We are appalled, we feel let down and we are taking all the action we can to prevent this happening again.”(Times Online). Hmmm...perhaps they should have investigated the 'suspicions' they already had about these same suppliers before the BBC's Panorama team (effectively) forced them to. Then maybe the outrage wouldn't seem so contrived.

What are we to make of this debacle? Well here are 2 ideas to start with:
1) Question Primark's assertion that its labour costs are unrelated to the low prices it offers its fashion at. Is it really believable that high volume, low mark-ups, absence of big ad budgets and low overheads have alone contributed to Primark being the fastest growing part of Associated British Foods and the 2nd biggest clothing retailer (in volume terms) in the UK?

2) Question the genuine ethical cred of a company that, having been 'outed', cuts and runs. What of those children and their families now? We'd rather not dwell on the fact that they probably prefer very little money to none at all and so, in a perverse sense, were probably better off slogging for Primark than not at all. Odds are they are devastated by the turn of events. If it wasn't for such dire circumstances, the complicity that Primark says its a victim of, between workers, middlemen, subcontractors and others wouldn't exist.

Rather than be appalled and get out, Primark needs to invest resources in engaging with issues on the ground in places it chooses to take its business to. This means pressuring the Indian government to do more, supporting the best NGO efforts in children's welfare in India itself and monitoring the entire supply chain rather than just factory conditions. It is simply not enough to take your business to places like India and be an ostrich about what you are walking into. We now know too much about labour conditions in these countries to accept just this much from any company doing work there.

So basically its not rocket science: all of the 'right' thing to do involves taking time off notching up the bottom line and putting it to responsibly engaging with the labour and labour conditions you locate yourself in; and further, to taking, on the chin, the effect this has on your budgets and overheads. Some might say this is just putting your money where your mouth is.

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