Kenny gets rock-star welcome as he opens Primark store in Berlin

Taoiseach greeted by Mexican wave by customers queueing outside budget retailer

Taoiseach Enda Kenny received a rapturous welcome as he opened a Primark clothing store in Berlin, operated by the Irish Penneys group, although demonstrators protetested outside. Video: Reuters

Thu, Jul 3, 2014, 18:02

Taoiseach Enda Kenny was given a rock-star welcome worthy of David Hasselhoff himself when he arrived to open a new Primark store in Berlin this morning.

With a crowd of customers building outside - and a busy fair trade protest just beyond them - employees from the fast fashion retailer’s 13th store, their managers looking on, gave Mexican waves for the amused Irish visitor.

Mr Kenny praised Penneys, which operates in Europe as Primark, as an important ambassador for Irish business across the continent and a key part of the Irish economic recovery.

“It makes me proud as Taoiseach ... to come here to Berlin and see a company like Primark so succesfully operating in the German market,” said Mr Kenny before cutting the ribbon alonside leading company executives and company founder, Arthur Ryan.

Primark employs over 6,000 people in Germany, almost half the total of 14,000 Irish-created jobs in Germany - 3,000 more jobs than the other way around. Primark says its German trade contributes €700 million annually to the economy here. The company has 274 other stores around the continent and, next year, pushes into the US market.

In a nod to ongoing controversy regarding the true cost of fast fashion, with Primark at its centre, Mr Kenny told company executives and employees he was aware they “publish a very strong code of ethics” and were at the “vanguard” of fair-trade issues.

“It is very important for us, as an Irish company, to be able to say that worldwide when we are asked these questions,” he said.

Mr Kenny moved on to view a surviving section of the Berlin Wall, a quarter century after its fall, and attended a lunch for the Irish community in the embassy. This afternoon, he meets Chancellor Angela Merkel for bilateral talks and addresses the annual gathering of the economic council of her ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Back at the Primark store, group HR and business development director Breege O’Donoghue said Mr Kenny’s presence was a happy coincidence after the company approached Irish ambassador Michael Collins to open the Berlin store.

Ms O’Donoghue told workers assembled before her they had joined a “serious firm with serious ethical principles, no schick-schnack and no tricks”.

The company was moving on past last week’s controversy of SOS labels sewn into clothes, she said, part of a campaign against fast fashion stepped up after a supplier factory collapsed last year in Bangladesh claiming over 1,100 lives.

“I am satisfied this garment I am wearing was not made at the expense of the workers in the supply chain,” she told The Irish Times. “I was in Bangladesh last year and spent eight days. We have done a lot of good work in Bangladesh. Trade is better than aid.”

The three-storey store, the second in Berlin, is spread over 5,200 m2 and was given a €19 million fit-out with concrete and graffiti elements.

Several Irish companies were involved in the store fit-out, including Bennett (Construction) Ltd, Premier Electrics and Lynskey Engineering.

On a tour of the store, German Primark executives were quizzed by journalists about Primark’s ethical trade promises, the labour conditions at its suppliers and the environmental consequences of creating disposable fashion.

“We’ve made progress but we still have some way to go including the possibility of full transparency in our supply chain,” said Wolfgang Krogmann, director general of Primark Germany and Austria.

The store doors finally opened just before noon, but with none of the usual rush of screaming teenagers - partly because of crowd control measures outside, and partly because there was only a modest crowd waiting.

“Berliners don’t go to things before noon, the welfare recipients definitely not,” said 24 year Maik Schulz, waiting in line with his girlfriend, Fine Drewes.

“I like their clothes because the fabric is better than the cheaper German chains,” she said.

And what of the cost of cheap fashion? “That doesn’t affect me,” she said.

A few metres from the store, the “Campaign for Clean Clothes” attracted a sizeable crowd with leaflets, a clothes-swap stand and a woman sitting with a sewing machine in a wheely bin, handing out leaflets detailing the garment industry’s labour rights record.

A couple held up a banner reading “Murderous Prices”, another wrote “Rage against exploitation” and “people before profit” in chalk on the pavement before Primark.

“It’s difficult to win these people over because they’re all big eyes when they see the bargains,” said Giovanni Schulze, a 30 year-old campaigner.

Mr Kenny and his delegation saw little of the protest events, arriving and leaving by a back door.

One Irish protestor was waiting for him, though, and shouted: “Primark doesn’t become you, Enda.”