Germany is marking the 50th birthday of fast-fashion giant Primark on Thursday with store pickets and a new report flagging what its authors call low-cost fashion's high human cost.
The Christian Initiative Romero (CIR) says it interviewed 73 Sri Lankan employees of six named supplier factories to Primark, which has traded in Ireland since 1969 as Penneys. None are meeting the retailer's code of conduct; some are in breach of local law.
Sri Lanka has a working-hour ceiling of 57 hours and a minimum wage of €79 a month in the garment industry. The average working week for those surveyed was 59 hours and some working for as little as €73. The average base wage of those interviewed, according to the study, was just €2 above the legal minimum. That rose with overtime to an estimated €153 monthly. Official Sri Lankan figures suggest €150 a month minimum is required to feed a family.
After a 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh, a series of exposés and international outcry, Primark says it audits suppliers to guarantee conditions of local workers. All employees interviewed for the German report said they were instructed to work less and treated better during auditor visits.
“I’ve been working here for eight years but nothing has changed,” said one woman. “I wouldn’t recommend this work to anyone. The wages are very low ... we can’t even buy the food we need.”
At one Primark supplier, four of eight employees interviewed complained of skin problems through the use of chemicals.
Suppliers provide a rest room for tired or sick employees, some even have a factory doctor, but any time not working is deducted from their wages.
Sri Lanka’s constitution guarantees the right, on paper at least, of all citizens to join a union. None of the six Primark suppliers investigated allowed unions, while just one permitted a works’ council.
The report suggests that the six Primark suppliers investigated are in violation of the Irish retailer’s code of conduct, backing the right to collective bargaining, safe working conditions, wages which meet basic needs and provide some discretionary income, and hours that “shall not exceed 48 hours per week”.
More than half of those interviewed by CIR do more overtime than is legally permitted in Sri Lanka, 46 per cent earn less than the minimum wage in regular hours, before overtime while 37 per cent work undocumented overtime without extra payments.
The report notes that Primark obliges its suppliers to sign a code of conduct, “but without effective sanction mechanisms in international or national law [it] cannot be made responsible” for breaches.
The CIR report calls for a higher minimum wage than the current €79 in Sri Lanka and greater union recognition to ensure working-hour ceilings are respected.
Responding to the CIR report, Primark said: “We take the monitoring of the standards we expect in our suppliers’ factories very seriously and where issues are discovered, either by audits, third parties or workers, we will always fully investigate.” The retailer said it only sources from three of the six factories mentioned in the report. Of the three other factories mentioned in the report, one ceased to be an approved supplier in 2018 and the other two are not approved suppliers. “Regardless of this, we do not tolerate unapproved subcontracting and will fully investigate the claims made in the report.”
“Through our audit process carried out in each of the factories in the past three-eight months, we found a small number of issues in these three sites, including one worker who was working excess overtime. As is our policy, the Ethical Trade team is working with these suppliers to address the issues found and to monitor progress.”