Surviving a disaster: Primark bids to repair the damage

After a factory collapse that killed 1,000 people, the cut-price fashion retailer insists it has worked hard to shore up the Bangladeshi clothing industry. But critics say it still has more to do
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The head of ethics at Primark has claimed the discount clothes retailer is "a force for good" in Bangladesh, six months after the disastrous Rana Plaza collapse that saw more than 1,000 killed and 2,500 injured.

The Independent also understands the retailer will today announce that it will begin paying long-term compensation in the new year to the 550 workers in its supply chain at the facility. The firm is also expected to guarantee a further three months' wages to workers or their dependants. It has paid six months so far.

In an outspoken defence of the business Paul Lister, the firm's general counsel who oversees business ethics and has been responsible for Primark's response to the disaster, says: "There are 4 million people working in the garment industry in Bangladesh. For them, for the millions of people dependent on those people, the families of those people, there is no alternative to the garment industry at the moment.

"Bangladesh is a new country that's gone for 30-40 years of having very little industry, and over the last few years has got this garment trade that is growing exponentially. Some would say that in 2020 it will have grown sufficiently to alleviate abject poverty in Bangladesh."

Mr Lister, a regular traveller to the country, admits that conditions in some plants there are "shameful" but insists that this is not the case with factories that make its product.

He adds: "The beauty of the garment industry – and words like 'force for good' have been used in the past – and the reason it's a force for good is you're taking a whole load of people from abject poverty, from the fields, from the farms, and you're putting them into money earning, you're giving them bank accounts."

Mr Lister also says Primark, which is owned by Associated British Foods, was the first on the ground with aid after the disaster.

"Primark was the first to come out and say we were in that building but 28 brands were in that building. Nine of them turned up and said they were in Geneva. Some are still denying responsibility. We were the first. Why? Because we knew we were there. Because we know where our clothes are made.

"We are very, very, very keen to find out where our clothes are made. We don't go through agent after agent after agent. We have complete transparency on where our clothes are sourced, and that is a big plus. I'm not going to sit here and say there aren't issues, there are always issues when you buy from the developing world but we will do our best to address those." Mr Lister says Primark is firmly behind an accord forcing commitments from Western firms in Bangladesh to insist on certain standards for workers and the state of the plants. But he says others have to play their part too.

"The accord needs to work. Rana Plaza was a horrible tragedy. What the accord is about is looking at the circumstances and trying to ensure that it doesn't happen again. Frankly, everybody should be working hard to ensure that is the case."

He points to a widely reported dispute between Tesco and garment maker Liberty Fashions, which has seen the retailer pulling out of a factory owned by the latter following a structural survey, as proof that the accord is working.

He also denies that Primark's ultra-cheap fashions are the cause of low wages, which critics have described as amounting to not much more than "pennies". He points out that the production lines that produce £4 shirts for Primark frequently produce £64 shirts for other labels at the same time. "If you offered to pay £1 more, it wouldn't do anything to wages," Mr Lister says. "The pennies argument is not an argument that should be directed at Primark. That's what's being paid in Bangladesh, and in factories where Primark work is being done you'll have a line of Primark and you'll have a line of other retailers and it's all the different price points on there.

"Is the Primark price point a result of the pennies argument? No it absolutely is not. It can't be because those workers on those lines are paid the same wages on the same lines." Mr Lister argues that it is down to the country's government to increase minimum wages, and insists that Primark would support such a move.

The work has not gone entirely unnoticed by the company's critics, but they still argue that more can be done. The TUC, for example, gives Primark credit for the actions it has taken to date, but says the business still needs to show it is willing to keep up the pressure on the Bangladeshi government and factory owners to improve wages. The general secretary, Frances O'Grady, says: "Primark deserves credit for taking action quickly in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster. Sadly, the same cannot be said of some of their high street rivals, with Peacocks and Jane Norman still refusing to sign the safety accord agreed with unions and most other major retailers.

"Unions in Bangladesh are working hard to persuade the government to raise the minimum wage. But they need brands like Primark to actively support their efforts as the government won't do anything without having international retailers onside."

Ms O'Grady adds: "It is ironic that Primark supports union membership in Bangladesh but has discouraged workers in its UK shops from joining a union."

Anti-poverty campaigning organisation War on Want says the key is securing a living wage for garment workers. John Hilary, executive director, says: "There's a long way to go before workers in factories producing for Primark are treated in the way that they truly deserve to be. Primark must ensure that all workers producing its clothes are paid a living wage that means they can work their way out of poverty. Anything else is still exploitation and unacceptable."