LONDON - British budget fashion chain Primark has ramped up checks on the factories it uses in Turkey to ensure Syrian refugees are not exploited as part of a growing company policy to ensure its workers are fairly treated.
Mr Paul Lister, head of Primark's ethical trading team, said the retailer known for cheap, high turnover fashion is on a mission to ensure its supply chain is ethical and workers are not exploited - and that consumers know about its efforts.
Primark has said little over the years as it faced accusations of using factories or "sweatshops" in developing nations that employ what would be deemed slave labour in the West to sell T-shirts for as little as £2 (S$3).
But Mr Lister said the time was now right for Primark to be more open about its policy to crack down on worker exploitation and explain how it was able to sell clothes at such low prices.
He said the retailer has this year doubled checks on its 100 or so supplier factories in Turkey amid growing concerns about Syrian refugees who, without a right to work, were vulnerable to abuse.
Turkey is the third-largest supplier of clothing to Europe after China and Bangladesh and the world's biggest host of refugees, including about 2.5 million Syrians. "We know Syrian refugees are an issue in Turkey at the moment, so we have gone to unannounced audits in Turkey," he said.
"Turkey accounts for a small proportion of Primark's product sourcing, but we take our responsibility for workers in our supply chain extremely seriously wherever they are."
Turkey has come under scrutiny for illegally employing Syrians including in a report earlier this year by corporate ethics watchdog, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.
Retailers including H&M, Next, C&A and Primark reported identifying Syrian refugees in their Turkish supply base and detailed their efforts to protect refugee workers as part of the report that questioned 28 retailers.
Mr Lister said Turkey was home to about 100 of the 1,700 supplier factories that Primark uses globally, with worker conditions monitored at all factories globally by 2,500 audits a year and spot checks by his ethics team that will expand this year to 83 from 65.
He stressed that it is also important to see the benefits of working in the developing world.
He said the factories used by Primark employ about 750,000 people, which impacted 2.4 million people factoring in families.
"People are coming in from the farms to the factories, many illiterate, but using these factories as a means of educating their children which will alleviate poverty over time," Mr Lister said.
"If you believe that is a good thing - and I do - then we should be there and we should be dealing with the issues and I think the consumer generally believes this is the case as well."