Last updated: Jan 2009
After the Gold Rush
Primark hit the headlines in June 2008 when the BBC's Panorama exposed child labour in the company's supply chain in Tirupur, India. Ewa Jasiewicz visited Tirupur after the crisis had died down to assess the results of the Panorama campaign.
At first sight, Tirupur doesn't look like an international fashion capital. It doesn't feature in any guidebook or tourist map. There is no savvy introduction to this, the textiles capital of India, home to 500,000 garment workers employed in the cutting, sewing and dyeing of millions of garments every year.
Panorama's investigative journalist Dan MacDougal broke the story after posing as a buyer to enter the Bhavansigar refugee camp, 70 miles north of Tirupur. Here he found Tamil children as young as nine and women homeworkers sewing sequins onto Primark garments in cramped, dark rooms for little pay and no job security.
Primark immediately denied all knowledge of these poor conditions and the use of children in their supply chain and sacked at least three suppliers for breach of trust. Local sources say hundreds lost their jobs. Primark refused to take responsibility or compensate those sacked. NGOs were outraged and the area was a media circus for weeks.
No child labour here
The Tirupur Exporters' Association, representing 70% of regional exporters, played down the scoop. Speaking from his office in a leafy suburb, TEA Executive Secretary Mr A. Sakhtival claimed that the children were "just helping their parents after school”, that the story had the hand of the NGOs in it. He told the media unequivocally: "There is no child labour in Tirupur.”
Local trade unions too were quick to attribute the scandal to NGO interference and claimed to know nothing of any job losses. The President of the Centre for Indian Trade Unions, which represents just 10,000 workers in the area yet regularly negotiates wage deals with the TEA, told us: "We have no information about Primark, we have heard nothing about it”. However, a trade union official from the area did tell UK NGO Labour Behind the Label that at least one and possibly two factories had closed as a result of the exposure.
Mary is a case worker and psychologist with Indian NGO SAVE (Social Awareness and Voluntary Education). SAVE has been working to eradicate child labour since 1994. The organisation runs education and rehabilitation schemes as well as homes for former child labourers and orphans. SAVE's case workers participate in factory raids. According to Mary they find an average of 250-300 children per year working in small subcontracted workshops and factories.
Mary laughs at the Tirupur Exporters' Association's claim of there being ‘no child labour in Tirupur'. "They cannot say simply that there is no child labour, we are living with the legacy of it. We see the effects of it every day with the children that we look after.”
Panorama's scoop on child labour was not the first story to identify child labour in Western supply chains. 1992 saw the Daily Mail break a story on C&A, prompting the company to sack subcontractors. The BBC reported children sewing footballs in Uttar Pradesh in 1998 for Nike, Channel 4 alleged child labour in Tesco's supply chain in Bangladesh in 2006, and Gap ran into controversy in 2007 over child labour used by subcontractors of its suppliers.
So why does this keep happening? Beyond the periodic scoops, what are the structural factors that enable child labour and labour exploitation to continue?
Pressure on price
The answers lie in the structure of increasingly globalised production chains. Retailers in the UK are pushing business risks down their supply chains, constantly looking to source their products faster and at a lower cost. In these circumstances, ensuring workers have decent labour standards is far from a priority.
Tirupur has approximately 1,000 exporters, 6,000 factories and 5,000 subcontractors. The pyramid of production begins with a minority of large factories employing 1,000 workers or more per unit. These are the tip of the iceberg. Often complying with basic health and safety standards, some have union recognition, and most are audited by their buyers. These are the visible, ‘open-gate' factories that can pass basic audits, and tick most of the boxes when it comes to minimum standards.
These are followed by smaller enterprises, with variable conditions, audited less frequently if at all, and employing between 100-200 workers, mostly on a casual basis or short term contract. When orders are low many are unemployed, but during peak times can be compelled to work up to 24 hours a day.
These businesses then subcontract to a variety of workshop subcontractors which can in turn subcontract to an ever-widening base of increasingly invisible workers, from smaller and smaller units to the very bottom of closed-door homeworking, typically involving families in their own homes, spanning whole neighbourhoods, and working all hours to finish garments to meet ever-more competitive deadlines.
Home work or factory work?
So would a more an integrated, centralised production process, with work done under one roof be any better? And how would this impact on workers?
Ruth Bergan, of HomeWorkers Worldwide, argues that it is highly unlikely integration of this kind would ever happen in practice. "The demands of the retailers are driving the shape of the industry – to meet large orders at short notice, suppliers often have no choice but to use subcontractors. It is also important to recognise that homeworking is an integral part of many production chains, both in the UK and internationally and is often one of a very few options open to women workers, particularly where they are tied to the home by caring or other responsibilities.”
She argues that integrating production in this context would take work and vital income away from them. "Companies need to recognise homeworking in their chains and take steps to ensure they have decent working conditions.”
Breaking the chains
So how can the chains of child labour and labour exploitation be broken? Primark claims that it is ‘impossible' for any buyer to have an oversight of its entire supply chain. "It's very difficult to identify abuses particularly with subcontractors when your contract with the supplier is so distant,” explains Geoff Lancaster, Head of External Affairs at Primark.
Asked whether the company could use its economic power in the region to advance reform of supply chains, Lancaster believes these structures are an inherent part of the majority world and that Indian workers cannot expect the same standards as Western workers.
"This isn't really a practical suggestion. The situation on the ground is extremely complicated, the supply chain is riddled with manufacturers, homeworkers, dominated by deregulated activity, it would be very difficult for the suppliers to change that structure. I recognize the logic but we are talking about the developing world which is far from ideal. You're trying to revolutionise a traditional socio-economic situation built up over decades and trying to apply Western ethical standards into a socio-economic model which doesn't quite fit.”
Ruth Bergan, of HomeWorkers Worldwide challenges these claims, "Supply chains are increasingly complex, but this is a relatively recent development which is happening because companies in the UK and elsewhere are engaged in a ‘race to the bottom' for cheaper, faster products.”
A. Aloyisuoius, Director of SAVE and convenor of the Tirupur People's Forum (TPF) – a coalition of NGOs, academics and local organisations – believes change is possible. He believes Primark should re-employ the three terminated suppliers and take responsibility for all workers who produce for them. "The TPF doesn't believe that sacking these workers was fair – Primark should not cut and run. There was no consultation with local NGOs or unions when this happened and this needs to change. If we work together we can make real improvements on the ground."
Cutting and running
Internationally, Labour Behind the Label have joined local NGOs in urging Primark not to ‘cut and run'."The jobs Primark have put at risk through their action, may be the only things keeping these workers and their families from starvation,” states Sam Maher, "If Primark is the ethical company it claims to be, it would put more energy into ensuring these jobs were carried out in decent conditions and for wages that provided a dignified standard of living.” Yet Primark has called compensation for the affected workers ‘impractical'.
Locally, the Tirupur Exporters' Association wants companies like Primark to muck in and share the costs of cleaning up the industry. But Primark is already sharing costs according to Lancaster. "Unlike a lot of our competitors, we pay for the cost of auditing our suppliers and we conduct remediation programmes.”
For Labour Behind the Label, the claims of Primark are not enough. "Paying for audits that fail to register many of the most serious rights abuses is not the same as paying prices that allow for living wages, supporting workers to join unions, listening to them when they speak out and ensuring their buying practice doesn't contribute to excessive overtime and insecurity of work.”
At the grassroots, the TPF is calling for a multi-stakeholder dialogue and ‘mechanism', involving employers, unions and NGOs. Their vision paper states, "Periodical international reporting of the processes initiated by this mechanism will safeguard the garment industry's global market and subsequently the livelihood of thousands of workers.” TPF wants the committee to monitor all aspects of production. The vision statement is directed at the key local powers – the employers, in particular the Tirupur Exporters' Association and buyers such as Primark.
For now, Primark believes the child labour scandal is dead. So much so that Geoff Lancaster is to present at PR Week Magazine's conference this November on how the firm defended its reputation over the Panorama scoop.
But the human rights crisis continues, whether the media or Primark are watching or not. And the structures which allow for child labour to happen in the first place remain unchallenged, meaning more ‘scandals', crises and media gold rushes in the future.
In the meantime, it is up to organisations on the ground like SAVE, the Tirupur People's Forum and internationally, Labour Behind the Label, to keep picking up the pieces and pushing for change. And it is also up to us to keep looking, to resist ‘scandal fatigue' and to fight for the human rights of those who produce the clothes we wear so that the industry fundamentally changes.
What can you do?
Visit www.labourbehindthelabel.org and join the ‘Tell Primark not to cut and run' campaign. Write to Primark using the campaign cards or raise your concerns with your local Primark store manager.
- See www.savengo.org and to find out more about the work of the Tirupur Peoples Forum and SAVE .
- Visit www.homeworkersww.org.uk and find out more about homeworking.