Blog: Leonie BarriePrimark should learn from labour Gap

Leonie Barrie | 17 June 2008

Compare and contrast the stances taken by two fashion retailers in almost identical circumstances after child labour was found in factories making their clothes.

Last October, children were discovered in an Indian sub-contracting unit that was embroidering girls’ tops for the GapKids label. Gap’s policy was to investigate the issue, work with suppliers to come up with a solution and, as its strategy on child labour advises: “Remove the child from the workplace, provide it with access to schooling and a wage, and guarantee the opportunity of work on reaching a legal working age.”

In contrast, Primark's response to a similar situation uncovered by TV documentary makers and outlined in a statement issued by the retailer yesterday (see previous blog entry), is a “knee-jerk, cut and run” move to sever contracts with three of its Indian suppliers also accused of using child labour.

Workers' rights groups have reacted angrily to Primark's decision, pointing out that good practice where workers' rights abuses are uncovered is to stay with factories and work with them to improve conditions.

Labour behind the Label's campaigns coordinator, Martin Hearson points out: “This reaction from Primark smacks of old school reputation management and falls far short of the response we would expect to see from a company that claims to be committed to ethical trading.”

But the issue also highlights a number of uncomfortable truths, perhaps, about the pressures placed on suppliers in Asia and the Indian sub-continent by fierce competition among retailers – and in some cases a lack of understanding about the supply chains that make up their sourcing bases.

Illegal subcontracting is often a result of the pressure to produce large amounts of clothes quickly and cheaply – a key component of Primark's business model and one on which it is regularly questioned by observers who wonder how it consistently manages to sell shoes and clothes for just a few pounds per item (and in many cases even less).

Gap has made no secret of the fact it is working hard to change its own buying practices so that factories aren't overwhelmed with last-minute orders or changes to production plans, which can often lead to illegal subcontracting or pressure to waive overtime rules to complete an order.

It also singles out India as having particular problems due to the fact that the region has experienced a sudden increase in production and suppliers do not always have the capacity to handle the increased workload.

Primark’s statement also seems to hint that home working – where children were found doing sub-contracted embroidery and sequin work – is part of the problem and that none of its “suppliers is permitted to use home working.”
 
But home working in itself is not unethical, and in many regions the skills of home workers are much prized – particularly in embroidery, beading, embellishments – as well as playing an important role in garment supply chains and in local and national economies.

It was pointed out to me on an overseas trip last year, in the wake of the Gap allegations, that many retail buyers simply don’t understand that it is normal practice for registered factories to put out aspects of production to sub-contractors who run small domestic units.

The issue, of course, is that home workers, predominantly women, can be hidden at the bottom of unregulated supply chains, so that when companies take a ‘no homework’ stance they are not helping workers but forcing these supply chains even further underground.

Primark axes three Indian factories over child labour


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