Associated British Foods (ABF) is a British multinational food ingredients and retailing group operating in 52 countries around the world. The company employs over 138,000 people across its operations and has more than 380 Primark stores, its only apparel brand. In 2019, the company had $20.3 billion in revenue.
ABF has not made a high-level, public commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment, such as being a signatory of the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs). The company has established a gender strategy at the group level that focuses on creating a diverse and inclusive workforce that considers women’s representation, women’s networking groups and the gender pay gap, though no specific, time-bound targets related to gender have been identified. There are no details to show whether an individual is responsible for the company’s gender equality and women’s empowerment efforts. Neither was information found regarding whether ABF directly engages its own employees on gender issues. Primark does, however, engage with external stakeholders through its involvement with the HERproject run by BSR (Business for Social Responsibility), Women Win and UN Women. It has also integrated stakeholders’ feedback into its policies and practices to further raise awareness of workers’ rights.
ABF has a gender-responsive grievance mechanism at the group level that reflects an understanding of gender roles and the inequalities women face in the workplace, for instance guaranteeing confidentiality, allowing concerns to be reported anonymously to someone other than the direct supervisor via a telephone line, and ensuring non-retaliation and protection of the aggrieved party. Additionally, workers within Primark’s supply chain are able to submit concerns to its grievance mechanism, and suppliers are required to establish their own grievance mechanisms for workers to submit concerns. Primark also screens for gender-related issues among its suppliers as part of its audit processes, including sexual harassment and discrimination against women based on their pregnancy and marital status.
ABF publicly discloses the gender composition across various levels of leadership at least annually. With a workforce that is 52% female, women are underrepresented among its board members (33%) and senior management (36%). Primark, however, maintains gender balance – 40-60% women – in its senior leadership roles (49%) among a workforce that is 74% female.
ABF offers professional development programmes with specific support for women at the group level, notably Women in ABF, which offers networking opportunities and support for personal career development. It has also established the Two-Way Mentoring Programme, which matches women with senior leaders to support their career development and broaden their business experience.
In the supply chain, Primark considers the systemic discrimination that women face and requires its suppliers to comply with its Code of Conduct, including the non-discrimination clause that explicitly protects married women workers. It also promotes gender leadership by offering professional development opportunities to women workers through the Sudokkho project in Bangladesh. This project helps factories improve their systems and processes for training workers in sewing skills. No information was found on whether Primark requires its suppliers to have recognition agreements with local trade unions or collective bargaining agreements currently in place, although it requires suppliers to prohibit intimidation, harassment, retaliation and violence against trade union members.
Primark actively procures from women-owned businesses and takes specific actions to increase the procurement spend directed to these businesses through its Sustainable Cotton Programme, which works directly with female cotton farmers in India through its partnership with Cotton Connect and the Self-Employed Women’s Association. Primark has expanded the programme to Pakistan and China, where it also partners with local implementing partners, such as the Rural Education and Economic Development Society in Pakistan and the Heping Cotton Farmers’ Cooperative in China, in addition to Cotton Connect.
While ABF reports on its gender pay gap in Great Britain, thereby complying with national regulation, no information was found on how it specifically addresses the global gender pay gap across its entire operation to verify that its women employees receive fair compensation for their work. In terms of family-friendly benefits, no details were available regarding whether ABF supports the unpaid care burden carried by its employees at the group level, for example by offering paid parental leave or childcare support. Primark, however, offers flexible working options to its employees.
In the supply chain, Primark considers fair compensation by requiring suppliers to extend formal contracts to their workers and takes specific actions to help support its suppliers offer formal work arrangements. For example, it participates in programmes that focus specifically on supporting migrant workers on cotton farms in India, Pakistan and China as well as undocumented foreign workers in Turkey, to help eliminate the risks of forced labour and poor working conditions. While Primark does not require its suppliers to pay their workers a living wage, it has taken steps to support collective action on the issue through its involvement with ACT (Action, Collaboration, Transformation), which provides a framework to achieve living wages. In 2019, Primark also supported a study on the unpaid work and care burden for female garment workers in Bangladesh through the ‘WOW’ programme of the UK Department for International Development (DFID), which included individual surveys and focus group discussions with female and male workers and managers, as well as discussions with garment workers in their communities.
No information was found to suggest that ABF covers additional costs surrounding the maternal, mental or sexual and reproductive health needs specific to its women employees.
Beyond providing access to drinking water, there were no details on whether ABF requires suppliers to consider the specific health, safety and hygiene needs of their women workers, for example by requiring suppliers to provide adequately lit factory facilities and toilets separated by gender. Neither was there information to suggest it monitors the gender breakdown of workers’ injuries, fatalities, turnover or absenteeism rates.
ABF has not made a public commitment to provide workers with gender-responsive health information and services, for example by requiring suppliers to have an on-site clinic with credentialed health providers. Primark, however, requires its suppliers to provide access to adequate medical assistance and facilities in the event of illness or injury at work.
No information was found on how ABF prevents violence and harassment in the workplace. Neither was information found regarding the company’s effective remedy for violence and harassment grievances, such as not requiring private arbitration or silencing agreements.
However, Primark states that sexual or other harassment and verbal abuse or other forms of intimidation against workers must be prohibited, as stipulated in its supplier code of conduct that is available in different languages.
ABF provides no information regarding how it addresses non-discriminatory practices in marketing and advertising, for example by committing to avoid harmful gender stereotypes or ensuring gender-responsive communications and engagement with its customers to support gender equality and women’s empowerment.
Primark has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by placing substantial orders for upcoming seasonal stock with its suppliers and establishing a wages fund to make sure workers are paid as soon as possible for product in production. To date, over £23 million has been paid out. Primark has also sent care packages containing over 400,000 products to frontline workers, volunteers and patients around the world.