Protesters gathered outside the first Primark to open in Bonn on Tuesday, to protest what they said contradicted the image of Bonn as a sustainable and human rights centered city.
More than 100 demonstrators stood outside the store shouting “climate emergency — what climate emergency?” and “you don’t have the right to kill children.”
The protests focused on long-held allegations that the chain does not treat its workers fairly in countries such as Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and that their products’ short shelf-life added to landfill and was damaging to the environment.
Police were present as the demonstrators were blocked off from the shoppers entering the Primark throughout the day.
Bonn, in the west German state of North Rhine-Westfalia, was renamed a “FairTrade City” in 2018 after being lauded for its commitment to sustainable produce and development. Protesters said the opening of Primark contradicted this title, owing to the allegations made against the store by human rights and environmental groups.
Protesters claimed Primark had not acted enough to improve their environmental standards. The placard reads: “Primark makes Sri Lankan women work for up to 80 hours a week, for poverty wages”
‘A kick in the teeth’
One of the speakers and founder of the “Bonn im Wandel” (Bonn in transition) sustainability organization Gesa Moschkowski told DW it was a “kick in the teeth” for the huge store to open in front of the main station in Bonn, just weeks after the city declared a climate emergency.
She alleged Primark was a trader in “fast fashion,” meaning that their products were low quality and were therefore easily worn out, increasingly adding to landfill. Landfill produces around a tenth of all methane emissions across the planet.
“Our politicians need to stop creating illusions and have to see it how it is,” Moschkowski said at the demonstration. “It is absurd, we are standing in front of the biggest change to our world since the Industrial Revolution.”
“If we do not change how we act, the world itself will change irreparably,” she added.
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Protesters performed a die in as they demanded Primark come clean on the treatment of their workforce abroad. Demonstrators shouted slogans as shoppers waited for the new store to open, including “you will have blood on your hands if you enter” and “we would all be better off without Primark.”
Protesters staged a die-in in front of the new Primark, as they accused Bonn of leaving their ethical values behind.
“Primark is one of the main high street chains which focuses on very cheap products,” protester Klaus Berger told DW. “So they directly contribute to the exploitation workers face in the third world, for example in Sri Lanka. They earn less than they need to get by, they do not get the breaks they are legally entitled to.”
A 2018 report by the social campaigner Good on You said Primark’s ethical developments were no more than a “start”, giving it an even lower rating for its efforts to combat climate change.
Though the report said Primark had taken “some positive steps,” it highlighted the trader did not commit to a living wage in its code of conduct, and that the store does not own its own factories. This meant it has withdrawn its responsibility for the factory workers and any human rights violations which may be taking place in the factories.
Primark has before come under fire for employing underage workers, some as young as 14 or 15.
Low prices, hugely popular
Primark is known for its low prices in comparison to other shops on the highstreet. Ana-Maria Vlad, a shopper who had come from Cologne for the opening day, said Primark was one place she could buy clothes from — “many people who do not have that much money can come here and shop. We simply cannot afford to shop in other places.”
Allegations “completely untrue”
35-year-old Pierre, who did not want to give his last name, said he was not supportive of Primark and their ethical record, but that “the difference between their ethical standards and other shops is not so great.”
“It is a bit strange that so many people can fixate their anger on Primark, and leave other shops like H&M, and C&A without criticism. There is a lot to criticize at a lot of high street shops,” he added.
Primark’s Director General for Germany and Austria, Wolfgang Krogmann, told DW the allegations made by the protesters were “completely untrue, not in our store.” He said Primark had carried out 3,000 observations of factories across the world in 2018, in an effort to maintain good working conditions for their employees.
“We make sure that we do not have any child labor, that our workers have breaks, that they are treated just as workers should be treated.”
Some protesters acknowledged the shop would stay open regardless of their protest. “But it is about spreading awareness,” Moschkowski from the group Bonn im Wandel said. “Bonn says it has done a lot to develop its ethical approach, but allowing a company like Primark to set up here sounds like the opposite.”
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