A trio of women in the U.K. say they have found handmade labels reading “degrading sweatshop conditions” and “forced to work” sewn into clothes purchased at Primark stores in Wales and Ireland.
The first shopper to come forward bought a Primark dress in Swansea, Wales and found a hand-stitched label reading “forced to work exhausting hours” alongside the care instructions label on the dress, the Mirror reported on Wednesday. Then another shopper at the same store found a similar label with a different message. Each woman has been photographed with the garment and the label, but the Mirror has not published any pictures of a third shopper in Ireland who claims to have found a similar message in a pair of pants that Primark says have not been sold for four years.
The company has asked the women to bring in the garments so that it can investigate the apparent messages, noting that they have conducted nine separate inspections of the suppliers of the clothes in question since 2009 and found no evidence of violations of the company’s 11-point code of conduct for conditions at supplier factories. A statement on the company’s website raises suspicions about the labels’ authenticity, saying that the two items from the Swansea store “were made in two different countries many thousands of miles apart.”
If the labels are a hoax, it may be part of an ongoing campaign by worker activists outside the company’s supply chain to call attention to garment worker exploitation, hoping to curb the unsafe and exploitative practices of developing world garment factory owners that has followed the man-made disaster at Rana Plaza more than a year ago.
A Primark supplier operated on the second floor of the Rana Plaza factory that collapsed in Bangladesh last year, killing more than 1,000 workers. The company has pledged millions of dollars in payments to 581 workers or their families as a result, but the collapse has helped shine light on the widespread problems with factory conditions in developing countries where Primark and other low-price retailers source their garments.
The chain, which sells clothes and accessories at rock-bottom prices, has fought to avoid a reputation for exploitative labor practices in its supply chain in recent years. The main page of the company website features a section on “Our Ethics” alongside buttons advertising Primark’s products, and it is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative (though that group’s efficacy and transparency has been called into question).
In 2009, the BBC reported that one Primark supplier based in Manchester, England had operated a factory under sweatshop conditions and in violation of local minimum wage laws. A 2008 BBC investigation that was later retracted by the network reported that Primark’s Indian suppliers were exploiting refugee children. Years went by before the internal review of the report concluded that it did not meet the BBC’s editorial standards, but the company’s image had already been darkened, and it fired the supplier companies involved.
Associated British Foods, which owns Primark, consistently ranks at or near the bottom in Oxfam’s annual Behind The Brands investigation of how ethically corporate conglomerates conduct their supply chain operations.