with contributions from Poppy Grant
 on January 13, 2009

LONDON — Primark, the U.K.-based discount clothing chain owned by Associated British Foods, said Monday it would investigate claims made by the BBC and London’s Observer newspaper that working practices at one of its U.K. suppliers are illegal and unethical.

A report that appeared Monday on the BBC’s Web site alleged that an investigation by an undercover reporter found that one of Primark’s U.K. suppliers, TNS Knitwear in Manchester, along with one of its subcontractors, employed illegal immigrants and paid them below the U.K.’s minimum wage. The full report was due to appear on the BBC’s “News at Ten” show Monday night, while some of the allegations also appeared in the Observer on Sunday. Videos on the BBC’s Web site apparently showed TNS’ owner telling the BBC reporter she would be paid less than the minimum wage of 5.73 pounds, or $8.49 at current exchange, an hour, and another showed an employee saying he worked in the U.K. illegally.

“The apparent practices shown in today’s BBC News broadcasts are a matter of great concern to Primark,” the company said, adding it had paid to have TNS Knitwear independently audited in April and December of last year and had a corrective action plan in place “dealing with the issues discovered.”

“The audit process did not, however, discover all of the apparent practices portrayed by the BBC,” the company said. “Primark is undertaking a full investigation, which includes whether this is due to any shortcomings in this particular audit process. Primark apologizes for the harm and distress to the innocent employees of both TNS and TNS’ subcontractor, Fashion Wave.” Primark added that it had reported the alleged illegalities to the relevant U.K. authorities.

Despite the allegations, Primark’s vast store on London’s Oxford Street continued to do brisk business Monday afternoon. Claire Hallam, a London student shopping at the store, said claims about Primark’s labor practices wouldn’t stop her from frequenting the fast-fashion chain. “I do think about [the allegations], but it doesn’t stop me shopping, especially during the credit crunch,” said Hallam. “If I had more money to shop in more expensive places, then I wouldn’t shop at Primark.”

Her sentiment was echoed by another London student, who would only give her name as Rina. “It’s a shame that [unethical labor] happens anywhere, but [Primark is] cheaper than most places, and I don’t really have a choice.”

Following the allegations, the U.K.’s Ethical Trade Initiative, which aims to improve the lives of workers in global supply chains — and of which Primark is a member — asked that the retailer remove the ETI’s branding from its stores and Web sites while the claims are investigated. “Primark is surprised and disappointed with the public stance adopted by the ETI,” the firm said Sunday. “Primark will defend itself vigorously in any ETI internal inquiry that should arise, and we expect to be completely vindicated.”

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