Several shoppers at European retailer Primark have gotten a shock recently, as clothing they purchased came with care labels claiming unethical working conditions at the company’s factories.
Two customers in the UK’s Swansea reportedly found hand sewn care labels in Primark products. One said, “Forced to Work Exhausting Hours,” while the other claimed, “’Degrading’ Sweatshop Conditions.”
In a third incident, a shopper in Northern Ireland claimed to have found a note stuffed into a pair of pants she purchased from Primark. According to CNN, the note, which was scrawled in Chinese and wrapped around what appeared to be a prison identification card, said, “We work 15 hours every day and eat food that wouldn’t even be fed to pigs and dogs. We’re (forced to) work like oxen.”
Some are wondering whether forced labor notes are garment workers’ cry for help or simply a hoax.
In a statement on its website Wednesday, Primark noted concerns over the care labels’ origins as both labels–found on prior season clothing sold in the same store–appear to be very similar, both garments were originally on sale around the same time, and the garments were made thousands of miles apart in different countries.
Suspicions also surround the note found in the pants as the article was last sold in stores four years ago, and Primark said its ethical standards team has since done nine inspections of the supplier that made the pants and found no instances of prison or forced labor.
“Despite growing suspicions in relation to the origin of the labels and the considerable time delay since the garments were bought, Primark knows its responsibilities to the workers in its supply chain and has already started detailed investigations,” according to a Primark spokesperson.
In a previous statement Monday, the company said, “Primark takes allegations of this type very seriously. We have asked the customer who discovered the label to return the dress, which has not been available for sale since 2013, to us so we can fully investigate how the label became attached and whether there are issues which need to be looked into. No other incidents of this kind relating to this dress have been reported.”
Whether true or not, these incidents have dragged Primark back into negative light just two months after the anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,000 workers and injured thousands of others. Primark was among the retailers who had sourced product from Rana Plaza, and more than one year later, many victims and their families are still awaiting compensation for the tragedy, but Primark said it has paid $12 million in total aid for the workers and their dependents.
Some have said this incident, whether legitimate or not, may mark the tip of the iceberg for making conscious consumption a more relevant concern for consumers. Following the Rana Plaza disaster, subpar labor conditions have been exposed worldwide and brands invested in retaining ethical standards and consumer loyalty have begun making efforts to create more compliant supply chains. But getting consumers to prioritize ethical fashion, which many say will be key to cleaning up the industry, has been a bigger challenge.
Primark has recalled the three items and said it will fully examine the circumstances under which these labels, and the note, could have been attached to the garments. The retailer also said, since 2009, it has carried out some 10,000 factory audits of its suppliers.