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UK Government provides support for Primark and other supply chains

The UK Government has announced a new fund to improve workers’ rights and conditions in high street supply chains during the coronavirus pandemic. Businesses said to be benefiting from the scheme include Primark, Mondelez (Cadbury, Green & Blacks) and Tesco.

Campaigners ask why these multi-million pound brands are not already protecting those within their supply chains?

The Vulnerable Support Chains Facility will channel £4.85m in UK aid and £2million from businesses into improving conditions in agriculture and garment supply chains, and will focus on Myanmar, Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ghana.

The fund is intended to make workplaces safer, and it aimed at ensuring that supply chains can continue to provide the UK with goods throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

The announcement follows ongoing criticism of fashion brands for their treatment of those within their supply chains since the outbreak of Covid-19. UK fashion brands have cancelled millions of pounds worth of orders, contributing to mass lay-offs in many countries supplying clothing to the UK.

Concerns have also been raised about the unsafe conditions for those continuing to work in sweatshops during the pandemic. Campaign group Labour Behind the Label said that some factories had “remained open without enough safety measures, meaning that garment workers are risking their lives for their jobs.”

Why aren’t brands protecting workers?

The government says that conditions may be improved for an estimated 320,000 workers. Yet, critics are questioning why public money is needed to ensure safe conditions for those producing for mainstream brands.

“Supply chains are not vulnerable by chance, but rather by design,” Labour Behind the Label points out.

“The brands receiving funding, participate in a system that actively seeks out production in countries  with low wages and poor workers rights. Supply chains have actually been built to protect brands whilst limiting obligations to suppliers, leaving workers in precarious, low-paid employment. It is deeply concerning that DIFID funding, intended to end extreme poverty, will be funnelled into brands which have a track record of prioritising profit over the people who make their clothes.”

The charity TRAID also tweeted criticising the fact that the UK aid budget was being: “given to corporations to do things they should be doing anyway - like ensuring workers don't get coronavirus and have decent working conditions -… [and] being redirected and redefined to benefit UK consumers.”

Questions have also been raised about the particular recipients of the fund, which includes companies implicated in workers’ rights abuses and tax avoidance.

Profile: Primark

Primark was one of the first companies to cancel millions of pounds worth of orders from suppliers during the coronavirus pandemic, putting workers in its supply chains at risk of redundancy. The company was forced to do a u-turn after a public outcry and stated that it would create a fund to supply garment workers.

The move follows years of malpractice from the company. Primark tried to clean up its act after workers producing its clothing, along with those of many of high-street brands, were among those to die in the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013. Although it now has a good approach to supply chain management (receiving Ethical Consumer’s best rating), some reports of violations in its supply chains have continued in recent years.

In 2018, a report from Christian Initiative Romero (CIR) interviewed 73 Sri Lankan employees of six supplier factories to Primark. The workers said that Primark’s code of conduct was not met and that they were told to lie during factory audits.

Primark is owned by Associated British Foods, which has an annual turnover of over £15billion. Associated British Foods receives our worst rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies, with multiple high-risk subsidiaries registered in tax havens, meaning it is likely receiving money from a system that it refuses to pay into.

What should brands be doing?

Labour Behind the Label says “For decades, brands have wilfully profited from global supply chains which push suppliers into low-price contracts and result in precarious and low-paid employment for garment workers.”

It is now calling on fashion brands to meet its seven key demands:

  1. Honour contracts with factories in supply chains
  2. Pay wages and protect jobs
  3. Bailout the workers
  4. Prioritise worker safety
  5. Respect the right to refuse work
  6. Put people before profits
  7. Rebuild a more equitable industry

Food retailers should similarly be ensuring the safety of workers in their supply chains of their own accord.

Take Action

Labour Behind the Label is asking consumers to sign its petition to brands including Primark and M&S, who have been named amongst brands to be supported by the fund.