Primark under the spotlight in Bangladesh

Posted on: 2013-04-30 in Opinion   |   Tagged: industry watch

Julian Rea (@julianrea), Executive Director at CitySavvy, explains how in one 155-word statement Primark repositioned itself from callous corporate exploiter of the poor, to the only one brave enough to recognise its moral duty to help victims of the Bangladesh garment factory disaster.

Julian ReaThe story that has gripped the media most over the last few days has been the tragic collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh. As the death toll quickly rose into the hundreds, public anger in Bangladesh and abroad soon honed in on the well known brands that source clothes from this site, with Primark in particular being singled out early on.

This has largely been thanks to groups like Clean Clothes Campaign and Labour Behind the Label, which fight for workers' rights in the garment industry. They were quick to respond to the disaster and were able to frame much of the subsequent discussion by providing punchy sound bites and on-the-ground insights. Coverage consistently interspersed stories of heroic rescues and feats of survival with editorial about the true cost of cheap clothing and the way large corporations are seen to be ruthlessly exploiting the poor for financial gain.

Primark initially responded with a fairly standard statement, confirming one of its suppliers was based in the building, expressing condolences to those involved and assuring the public that it was assessing the situation and would “provide support wherever possible”. High-street fashion retailer Matalan, also named in early reports as working with suppliers in the building, made a similar statement but quickly moved to distance itself, stating “we don’t have any current production with them”.

All this did little to diffuse growing negative sentiment among an increasingly cynical public, with consumers taking to the streets to picket Primark’s stores, and message boards blazing with angry comments about empty corporate platitudes and disregard for worker safety.

However an update yesterday has changed the landscape completely. Primark announced that it is putting in place “immediate and long-term help for victims of this disaster”. It revealed that it has already started providing emergency food and aid to families, via a local NGO, but crucially went on to make the following commitment:

“Primark will also pay compensation to the victims of this disaster who worked for its supplier.  This will include the provision of long-term aid for children who have lost parents, financial aid for those injured and payments to the families of the deceased.”

This wide-ranging and robust response to the situation is remarkable for its long-term scope, but also for the specific nature of its approach to the different types of victim, suggesting a level of engagement and thoughtfulness that distinguishes it from often-generic corporate gestures of this sort.

However what is most unusual about this statement is the use of the word “compensation”. This is a highly sensitive word that evokes connotations of responsibility and guilt that most companies wouldn’t come anywhere near unless compelled by court order. While it must be noted that Primark neatly dilutes the impact of this word by pairing it with a slightly distancing reference to its supplier, this frank, no-nonsense approach gives it a more credible position from which to deliver a masterstroke.

In the final lines of the statement, without naming names, Primark notes that it is not the only retailer being supplied with clothes from this building, calling on others to follow the example it has now set: “We are fully aware of our responsibility. We urge these other retailers to come forward and offer assistance.”

In one 155-word statement Primark has repositioned itself from callous corporate exploiter of the poor, to the only one of a group of big international names brave enough to recognise its moral (if not legal) duty to help victims of a disaster that, it could be argued, it was not directly responsible for.

It must have been tempting for Primark to focus instead on distancing itself from this incident; laying the blame at the feet of its supplier and the other tenants, the now jailed building owner, or even more generally the apparent widespread disregard for building regulation in Bangladesh. Its chosen approach was more risky, with the potential to inflict greater damage on the company’s reputation if mishandled, but it seems to be paying dividends already.

The move to compensate victims has been widely covered with responses being generally positive, and since Primark has highlighted the fact that other big names are involved as well, it is no longer singled out as the main culprit. “Primark factory disaster” type headlines are giving way to more balanced accounts of the factors surrounding the incident.

Meanwhile those that tried to distance themselves entirely from the story are being unsympathetically outed by the press. Italian label Benetton was yesterday evening forced to retract its assertion that it had no links with any of the businesses involved after AFP posted photos of clothes amidst the rubble bearing the Group’s United Colours of Benetton tags.

The story is ongoing and as the death toll continues to rise Primark and its peers will remain under close scrutiny, as indeed will the Bangladeshi government which will presumably look to defend the nation’s £13bn garment industry. It is still too early to tell what lasting damage this incident will have on the reputations of those involved, but Primark’s response remains an interesting case study of how taking a bolder stance in a crisis can help to turn the tide of public opinion better than keeping your head down.

Julian Rea is Executive Director at CitySavvy, a pan-European financial and corporate communications firm, working in London and Amsterdam.

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