New Internationalist

Why I won’t be boycotting Primark

collapsed factory
Primark was one of the brands whose clothers were made at inside Rana Plaza Sharat Chowdhury, under a CC License

The recent events in Bangladesh have filled the media with horrific pictures of human tragedy: mothers mourning their lost children, rescue workers covered in dust unearthing more bodies, death and grief mounting under piles of rubble and boxes of unworn clothes.

Amongst my growing inbox of heart-wrenching testimony and photos from workers and rescuers on the scene, there is one image in particular that is seared into my mind. That of a man dust covered and dead, hugging a woman who lies limp in his arms. I cannot help but wonder, again and again, at what point did he reach over to hug, protect and comfort her? When did they realize they were both going to die? What were their final words to each other? Did they even know each other or did the terror of a collapsing building bring them together?

Pictures like these should not exist. Not for the price of a cheap pair of jeans or a $3 t-shirt that can be worn a few times and thrown away. Not ever.

The sad fact that sweatshop factories are an ongoing problem, and one that Labour Behind the Label have been campaigning against for years, does not change the shock many people feel at the events of last week. This image, along with the hundreds of others that tell of lives destroyed in the building collapse, has brought to the fore questions over what we, as consumers, can and should do.

In the past few days many people have asked me: ‘where’s OK to shop now?’, assuming that boycotts are the solution. Wanting to put a dent in the pockets of major brands is an understandable response to the tragedy. However, we urge people not to boycott the brands involved. Instead put the workers at the centre of the issue, and ensure their rights are respected. In response to a boycott, brands may cut production or pull out of factories. This would lead to the loss of jobs, garment workers struggling to feed their families and being unable to send their children to school.

The Rana Plaza tragedy is not an isolated incident. The problems are endemic and widespread in the garment and fashion industry, and all too often brands pay lip service to change without putting the finance and provisions in place to ensure it happens.

Countries such as Bangladesh rely on an expanding garment trade. Boycotting may result in a quick-fix solution by brands which will simply pull out of the country, whereas what is needed is a commitment to long-term, actual and lasting change.

We want brands to work with unions on the ground and to listen to the opinions of those who know the conditions best – the workers themselves. Brands need to commit to improving building safety, working conditions and to ensuring workers are paid a living wage. As consumers, our role must be to push this change by asking relevant questions of the companies whose clothes we wear and by lobbying for change. Pressuring brands such as Primark to sign up to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which importantly places workers and local unions in a central role, can make a real difference to the lives of workers. As a consumer you have power beyond simply where you put your money. You have a voice.

Recent campaign successes, such as the 2,800 Indonesian workers from the PT Kizone factory who won a landmark settlement against Adidas, illustrate the power inherent when workers, unions and consumers worldwide unite. By taking action, signing petitions and writing to brand CEOs, you can make a positive impact by pressuring them to respect their workers rights.

Because we owe those that died at Rana Plaza. Not only for the cheap clothes which we wear, but also because we are still here while they are not. We will go on fighting to ensure that never again should global brands deny their responsibilities until it is too late, and never again should they put profit over people. The death of the dust-covered man and woman who lost their lives in each others arms last week was tragically preventable. As have been the hundreds of other people who have died in factories such as Rana Plaza over the last decade. For them we will go on fighting. Never again should people risk their lives for the price of a cheap t-shirt.

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  1. #1 Rob 03 May 13

    Whilst I sympathize with the sentiments and logic of this article, I would still advocate boycotting, just because it's the upshot of a simple choice.

    Clearly, it would be undesirable for the likes of Primark to pull out of factories, divest from places like Bangladesh and leave people worse off than they already are. On the other hand, next time I buy a T-shirt I've got a choice between one that has been made under exploitative labour pratices and one that has been made more fairly. That choice seems easy.

    I agree that engaging brands like Primark and pressuring them to sign up to labour protection agreements is likely more productive than a formal blanket boycott campaign. I just think spending power has to be engaged simultaneously.

  2. #2 Nin Castle 03 May 13

    Yes its true boycotts dont work, but neither should you carry on buying and putting money into companies that dont have sustainability at heart and definitely dont have their production under control. There are LOTS of companies trying to work in a more socially aware way and despeartly trying to compete in this very competitive market place. If you want change support the people who are trying to offer you that choice!

  3. #3 EdwardS 05 May 13

    I agree with Rob and Nin Castle below: by boycotting products produced under intolerable conditions, one is often also taking a positive decision to seek instead products produced under demonstrably acceptable conditions. One is encouraging good practices, not only punishing bad practices.
    Also, in extreme rights violation cases, a boycott can help prevent bad practices from spreading. It puts a floor under the ’rush to the bottom’, and warns producers that they have to compete within social limits. Like in medicine, there are unfortunately cases where one has to amputate in order to stop the spread of a disease.
    Boycotts and other forms of blocking trade are not the only trade measures available. In some cases, it may be better to envisage the withdrawal of trade preferences (re-impose ordinary tariffs)or the imposition of fines, a measure possible in some Canadian free trade agreements. The money derived from such measures could be used to finance genuine reforms in the exporting country concerned.

  4. #5 Arianna 08 May 13

    Ridiculous. We apply pressure through boycott, that's the whole point of it. All these companies care about is money, which is why boycotts are the most effective option.

  5. #6 Jan 12 Aug 13

    It's basically a matter of demand... At moment people don't want to spend too much money on clothing and Primark offers just what people want. I don't think boycotting will Primark will improve employee rights anywhere in the world. However because of the media attention these budget retailers are getting, it will most likely result in them changing their ways.

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About the author

Ilana Winterstein is a human rights campaigner for the anti-sweatshop group Labour Behind the Label. She works to improve conditions and empower workers in the global garment industry.

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