ITS unrivalled success took the competition by surprise as it won over both the high-street shopper and the diehard fashionista with its simple philosophy: high on style, low on price.
When Primark was launched, its flagship store in London's Oxford Street was besieged by stampeding bargain-hunters and sold more than a million garments in its first 10 days. The opening drew a bigger crowd than that managed by Topshop's much-hyped launch of its Kate Moss collection, which featured the supermodel herself moodily posing in its windows. Fashion bible Vogue gave a Primark jacket high-end credibility.
Last week, in an announcement that effectively pre-empted publication by the London-based Observer newspaper of this investigation, Primark announced it had sacked three of its clothing suppliers in India after being told by the BBC's Panorama programme of evidence that it was subcontracting labour to child workers. The investigation found that in the refugee camps of southern India young children had been working long hours in foul conditions to sew the designs that will see, at current growth rates, Primark eclipse Marks & Spencer as Britain's biggest mass-market fashion retailer by 2009, taking £1 ($2.70) of every £10 spent on clothing in the United Kingdom.
Other major retailers are scrambling to follow the cheap, fast and fashionable concept — for good reason. Worth an estimated £5 billion, the Primark chain now has 4.8 million sq feet of retail space across 177 stores in three countries, employing 25,000 people. But as this child labour scandal shows, the Irish conglomerate, which sells one in every 10 items of clothing bought in Britain today, had little control over part of its supply chain. Campaigners are now demanding that the UK government acts to force companies to be responsible for the welfare of workers all the way down their tangled supply chains.
Primark sacked the three suppliers before being hit by a wave of negative publicity inevitably coming its way from the documentary. The firm, owned by Associated British Foods, said it had made the statement to fulfil a responsibility to shareholders, not — as cynics suggested — to lessen the shock of an international expose. The retailer said that, as soon as it was alerted to the practices over a month ago by The Observer and the BBC it cancelled new orders with the factories concerned and withdrew thousands of garments from its stores.
The speed at which Primark acted may mean that its standing in the high street remains secure, its reputation repaired before many of its customers will have even noticed it was tarnished. But at the other end of the world nothing has changed for those tiny links in the chain of supply that is meeting the appetitive for cheaper and cheaper clothing: children like Mantheesh, who works for one of the sacked suppliers. At 11 her life is already an extraordinary story of survival. An orphan, this Tamil refugee had fled the bombings of Sri Lanka only to find herself abandoned by an opportunistic trafficker on a sandbank 10 miles off land. Exhausted and dehydrated, in the middle of the treacherous Palik Strait, the channel between India and Sri Lanka, she was rescued by fishermen just as the tide was closing over her.
Mantheesh ended up at India's Mandapam transit camp, a fenced-off series of dilapidated, one-storey cement blocks, 12 miles from the flat Arichalmunai beachfront, the first port of call for Sri Lankan refugees brought in by smugglers. She traced the path of thousands of her fellow refugees, moving north to the camps of the major textile industry region of Tamil Nadu where menial jobs are available to those desperate enough to take them. Mantheesh went to Bhavanisagar camp, 60km from Tirapur. Within months she was absorbed into India's burgeoning economy, hand sewing from dawn to dusk for a businessman who had shrewdly recruited hundreds of refugees on the cheap to make garments destined for half a dozen European firms, including Primark.
Working for The Observer over the past three years, I have helped expose several of the world's major retailers: Otto-Heine, the largest online fashion retailer in Europe; Esprit, the world's fifth largest clothing store; and Gap Inc, one of the most iconic modern brands, all for employing children. Each firm, without its knowledge, had used Indian contractors with scant regard for the consequences of subcontracting.
In the maze of narrow, mud-bricked lanes that form the spine of Delhi or Bangalore's poorest market areas, outsiders are highly conspicuous. The tightly packed buildings and heavily secured basements make it difficult to detect what goes on behind closed doors. Some of the units were hidden behind trapdoors, one was in a half-demolished building reached only by a rope ladder. Runners and watchmen are everywhere, protecting illicit drinking dens, brothels and sweatshops.
Carrying out an investigation into child labour last year, I was badly beaten for being found inside a sweatshop in the lawless Haryana state border area of northern India. An angry mob chased me through the ancient alleyways, a no man's land for foreigners and police. They smashed photographic equipment and threatened to kill my translator, who had his eardrum perforated in the attack.
According to Bhuwan Ribhu, lawyer with the Global March Against Child Labour, which has had activists murdered by sweatshop gangsters, the fight to expose child labour is increasingly dangerous for both journalists and activists. This, he claims, is one of the key reasons many big names in fashion escape international exposure.
"What consumers need to understand is it is an impossible task to track down all of these terrible sweatshops and factories employing children, particularly in the garment industry when you need little more than a basement or an attic crammed with children to make a healthy profit. The police have to rely on rare tip-offs because it is difficult to track down child workers. Even before the search parties get to the factories the owners are tipped off and many of the children are cleared out," he said. "More daring unit owners even hide the children in sacks and in carefully concealed mezzanine floors designed to dodge such raids. We have lost a number of activists, murdered in the course of their duties. Others have been dragged in chains behind cars."
Now, after a seven-month undercover investigation into India's sweatshop misery for Panorama, Primark joined the growing hall of shame of retailers proven to have had children making their clothes.Observer