Wile E Coyote, the famous Warner Brothers’ cartoon character, always managed to get himself stuffed full of cactus spines whenever he tried to catch Roadrunner.
Approaching the issue of Primark’s use of child labour, and their consequent dropping of three Indian suppliers, is equally painful.
The story, for those unfamiliar with it, is as follows: the BBC Panorama programme did an episode focusing upon whether the ethical trading claims of Primark, an Ireland based clothing retailer, were as strong as they claimed.
The sharp end of the programme was the revelation that certain garments, sourced from Tamil Nadu in India, had been worked upon by children.
As part of the programme’s production the BBC approached Primark for their response. The business conducted its own investigation and concluded that three suppliers had broken its standard, dropping them with immediate effect.
“It is NOT acceptable for children to produce or work on garments … under any circumstances whatsoever.”
The suppliers in question regularly outsourced their garments to home based workers for the finishing sequin work. In one particular instance they outsourced to some refugees from Sri Lanka, in an attempt to help them gain a proper financial foothold.
The refugees, in order to make as much of this opportunity as possible, allowed their children to work on the garments. In extreme poverty, where there is no guaranteed employment or state education, there is little alternative.
So to be clear, there was no forced child labour. No sweatshop conditions or kiddies being shoved down mine-shafts. In fact the organisation in question was trying to improve the lot of some of the poorest in its region.
Labour Behind the Label, a group which campaigns for better working conditions throughout the UK’s clothing supply chain, Labour criticised Primark’s action, saying:
“When companies respond in this way what they are really saying is that if workers speak out about their conditions they will lose their jobs.”
LBL goes on to contest that if Primark was genuinely interested in working conditions, it should do something to help alleviate the problems of poverty, not cut off those who are affected by it.
The Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI), of which Primark is a member, supports this position, stating unequivocally:
“If a company discovers that children are involved in making its products we expect them to … secure their urgent transition from work into good quality education.”
ETI go on to suggest that companies should get involved in programmes to provide that education where it is unavailable and improve their policies so that adults are paid enough to support the whole family.
So in the light of LBL’s observations it is difficult not to wonder whether Primark’s overriding concern in axing the three suppliers in question was to protect its brand and income, not advance ethical standards.
A More Painful Future
Primark’s situation was undoubtedly unenviable. Do you stick rigidly to the letter of the standard which you have adopted, or do you give yourself more flexibility to allow you to adhere to its spirit?
A business, according to the current definition, has to make money. However the principle has been established that the financial, environmental and social aspects of its operations ought to be considered with equal gravity.
So a businesses caught on the hook of a similar situation ought to look deep inside itself and ask whether it can improve the lot of those in greater need than its customers by relaxing some of its financial constraints.
This kind of painful dilemma is likely to arise more often as sustainability takes hold as the commonplace business practice.
The Primark picture is further muddied by allegations in the Indian Press that the situation was misrepresented by an NGO seeking to “garner foreign funds” for itself.
Whether true or not, this serves as a timely reminder that sustainability is not a pure area free of wrong, rather that we all need to beware of those who would turn it to their own particular advantage.
It would have been interesting to see Primark make a go of it, acknowledge that their supply chain had fallen below standard and then embark upon a programme to bring it back into line.
In the meantime, the space remains open for a business to take the principled road out of such a dilemma, attract customers’ spending and so prove to investors that ethical business practices truly are less risky.
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