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Germany

Paying The Price For Primark's Discount Craze

On the scene as Germany's 13th Primark branch was stormed by shoppers at its opening. Hard questions asked after the Bangladesh worker tragedy are lost in the furor of "Primania."

Germany's 13th Primark branch on Berlin's Alexanderplatz
Germany's 13th Primark branch on Berlin's Alexanderplatz
Thorsten Schmitz

BERLIN — It is 9 a.m. on a very sunny morning at Alexanderplatz and Jessica and her friend are standing in front of the entrance to the newest Primark branch. The two teenagers will wind up waiting patiently in line for the next three hours before the doors open at noon.

They have been looking forward to this moment for weeks with near feverish excitement. But wait, shouldn’t they be in school? "For Primark, we cut class."

Jessica has 100 euros in her pocket, but a niggling bad conscience: "Yes, of course, the clothes for Primark are definitely made by children, but I can't afford to pay 30 euros for a T-shirt."

At shops of the growing Irish-based multinational discount brand, a T-shirt costs 2.50 euros. Often, they don't keep their fit past the first wash, but it's worth it for Jessica. "When you pay just two euros for a T-shirt, you just throw it out if it doesn’t fit anymore."

Inside, Primark company director Breege O’Donoghue is awaiting Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny — who will be meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel later that day — to attend the opening ceremony.

O’Donoghue, 70, attends every new shop opening. When we note that with her age and her executive salary, she is hardly the typical Primark target audience, the response is ready: "Everything I wear is Primark and only cost me 42 euros." The golden bracelet as well? "Of course not," she answers.

Primark’s recipe for success, O’Donoghue declares, is "affordability." But isn't that also due to the fact that some of their products are made in countries where the monthly wage is 70 euros? Her mouth tightens at this observation. "We conduct ethical trade," she responds, and cuts short the impromptu Q&A.

"Primania"

The frenzy that a new Primark store opening inspires has a name: Primania. On the company's website, customers are able to upload pictures of themselves in Primark clothes, boasting of the latest bargains they've found.

The greed for discounts often suspends the stirrings of conscience. The numbers, however, speak for themselves: If you google the words "Primark" and "working conditions," 150,000 search results are displayed. If you google "Primark" and "shopping" on the other hand, 5.5 million pages show up. Amongst these, a large number of YouTube videos of girls who happily unpack their Primark bags and present their shopping booty. No company could wish for a more effective way of advertising — it is free of charge and capitalizes how eager young girls are to exhibit themselves on social media.

Some of these videos have received more than one million hits and YouTube places advertisements in these. This has turned into a form of people’s economy: The customers film themselves in Primark bikinis and blouses and receive money from YouTube as they place advertisements on their videos. With the salary received by YouTube, another Primark shopping trip is easily financed. It is a virtuous circle, except for those who do not even have 8 euros to buy a pair of Primark jeans: the workers sewing them.

Last year, a nine-story building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 and injuring 2,438. On the second floor, 580 employees of the Primark supplier New Wave Bottoms were sewing pants and shirts — most of them did not survive the collapse.

Primark, by its own account, paid $12 million in compensation to the victims and their surviving dependants and families. Primark did not state, however, whether the wages of its supplier’s employees in Bangladesh have been raised.

Hubertus Thiermeyer, the head of the federal trade union of service industries in Bavaria, says customers have a responsibility to understand the basic nature of the global economy. "Those who pay two euros for a T-shirt must know that someone else is paying the price for such a low rate," he says.

Primark is part of the major British corporation Associated British Foods, which owns the British tea company Twinings, as well as the Swiss malted drink Ovomaltine — among others. Primark’s turnover from its 276 shops in nine European countries continues to boom, and it now plans to expand into the U.S. market.

Can you trust the labels?

At the end of a normal working day, Primark stores will look more like a battlefield than a clothing shop. Hordes of girls, women as well as young men are forced to try items on in the middle of the shop floor, as the lines in front of the fitting rooms are seemingly endless. The clothes not purchased are left on the floor.

Just a few days ago, two Primark dresses were discovered that had clothes labels sewn into them, reportedly by workers trapped in awful conditions. They included statements like "forced to work to exhaustion."

The company investigated the matter and came to the conclusion that these were a fake: Just months beforehand, in the Welsh city of Swansea where both dresses were purchased, an art installation featuring such labels was exhibited and visitors to the art installation were encouraged to sew labels like these into clothes.

Meanwhile, a third such "case" has been discovered, in which a customer in Belfast found a label bearing a cry for help in Chinese in a pair of cropped pants. The local newspaper South Wales Evening Post reported recently that an art student produced similar labels for a project in conjunction with a Chinese University. The student in question had not responded to enquiries and deleted her Twitter and Facebook accounts.

The air is stifling in Berlin’s second Primark branch at Alexanderplatz, three hours after the store opening. At the entrance, two young girls are handing out flyers bearing the words "We don’t wear exploitation." A 52-year-old man approaches them and says, "I really hope that more shops like this will open up in Berlin." The girls are perplexed. "But are you not aware of Primark’s working conditions? Would you sew clothes in a factory for 14 hours a day, six days a week without health insurance?"

The man makes it brief: "Yes, I would. Because I cannot feed myself with your ideologies. I collect recyclable bottles to boost my meagre pension."

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