Campaigners will be demonstrating outside Primark's flagship London branch this morning, accusing the cut-price fashion chain of behaving irresponsibly in response to allegations of child labour in its overseas manufacturing operations.
Last week the company axed three of its south Indian suppliers for subcontracting embroidery work to groups using child labour, after a BBC documentary unearthed the problem. The Panorama film, "Primark on the rack", which will go on air tonight, was the result of many months of undercover investigation into working conditions on the sub-continent.
"The BBC came to us with very serious allegations about the conduct of a small number of factories that sell to Primark which we investigated immediately and very thoroughly," a spokesman for the company said. "What we found left us with no option but to drop those factories – no rightminded person would have done anything different."
War on Want, the charity behind today's protest, says that such precipitous action is just a public relations stunt, and leaves potentially hundreds of garment workers in an even worse position than before. "The problem is not over for the people who are going to be in jeopardy now because of these cancelled contracts," Simon McRae, a senior campaigner at War on Want, said. "It may be over for Primark's PR, but it won't be for those whose livelihoods are under threat."
Although the company says it will continue to buy from authorised suppliers in the same region and the overall value of its orders will not change, War on Want claims that the only responsible reaction to allegations of exploitative labour practices is to engage with the companies involved. "Primark's response undermines its commitment to the ethical treatment of workers – they are not interested in interacting with the suppliers, they just wanted to get it off the front page," Mr McRae said. "The company should be finding out what is going on and working with the suppliers to improve the situation. We are not saying that the company is not trying at all, but it has a long way to go, and if this is the way it responds the first time it comes across something going wrong, it doesn't set a good precedent."
Primark's problems in Tamil Nadu arose because its local suppliers had outsourced parts of the job to unvetted subcontractors. The practice was in direct contravention to the fashion chain's ethical sourcing code, hence the swift response.