Garden Bridge: a Garfield Weston Foundation of misery

Garden Bridge sponsor, the Garfield Weston Foundation donates circa £50m pa to hundreds of charities. Wow. What’s not to like? Well, apart from the churlish suggestion that a few family heirs alone allocating massive resources is, er, undemocratic, let us admit such benevolence is built on tax evasion, land grabs, forced labour and the death of workers.

Mothers wait in hope at Rana Plaza

Grieving mothers at Rana Plaza

But first.

Charity begins at home

The Garfield Weston Foundation is funded by an 80% share of a global business empire. The remaining 20% is shared to supplement the Weston family £11bn capital wealth. Additionally, various 4th generation family members earn substantial incomes: Jana R Khayat and Catrina Hobson at Fortnum & Mason, Guy Weston at Wittington, Garth Weston at Ryvita. George Weston, director of dozens of companies, gets £7m+pa as CEO of Associated British Foods.

Not subject of this post there is also an equivalent Canadian business empire and charity arm of the Weston family.

The Weston family are also political donors. In 2010 the Charity Commission ruled the family had donated £900,000 to the Conservative Party in breach of charity law, as were donations to right-wing think tanks and Eurosceptic lobby groups. George Weston appreciates low corporation tax and encourages voters to vote Conservative. Guardian | Third Sector | Times

The Associated British Foods empire

The grocery and retailing giant Associated British Foods (ABF) is the big daddy of the Weston family empire with sales of £12.8bn, 124,000 employees and operations in 48 countries. ABF brands include Jordans, Silver Spoon, Twinings and Primark.

ABF indulge complex international tax arrangements having 73 subsidiaries in tax havens. Despite the projected saving of life and millions to the NHS, ABF, the world’s largest sugar producer, lobby against the proposed sugar tax.

Oxfam have said ABF are:

  • the least ethical food company in the world here
  • bottom of their lobbying and supply chain transparency index here
  • deaf to concerns about climate change here

Primark: poverty, beatings & death

Ever wonder how you can buy the latest fashions for pennies? Primark claim because they are efficient, buy big and don’t advertise. The less partial suggest other factors may be involved. A 2006 investigation of Primark suppliers in Bangladesh found:

  • poverty wages
  • sexual harassment
  • sweatshop conditions
  • 7 day weeks
  • beatings for joining a union
  • locked factory exits
  • a factory fire killing 100
  • factories passing audits for Western retailers

Independent | War On Want

Two years later a follow up report said nothing had improved as a result of the first. Again in 2011 War on Want were still saying Primark, amongst others, had long benefited from cheap labour in the “full knowledge” that workers are denied basic rights. And “the huge profits made depend on the exploitation of women“.

In 2008 BBC Panorama reported squalid conditions and exploitation, including possible child labour (discussed below), in Indian factories. Subsequently, Primark sacked suppliers and cancelled millions of pounds worth of orders. Guardian | Daily Mail

Closer to home, in 2009, a Primark supplier was found to be abusing illegal immigrant labour paying poverty wages in a Manchester sweatshop. Subsequently, Primark handed the workers to the Border Agency. Guardian

On 24th April 2013 the Rana Plaza garment sweatshop collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Some workers had initially refused to enter the eight storey building because of visible structural cracks but relented after verbal and physical threats. 1,130 people were killed and 2,000 injured, mostly female garment workers. Primark fashions were found in the rubble. Guardian | BrandBehindLabel

Months later another nine garment workers were killed in a sweatshop that supplied Primark. ITV

In 2014 a Dutch NGO reported modern day slavery conditions for teenage Dalit girls in mills spinning for Primark. NLTimes | SOMO A follow up report said that Primark, already alerted of forced labour in their supply chain, were “still trading with Indian companies accused of routinely using forced labour of girls and young women“. Anti-Slavery

Years later, in 2016, Primark say Rana Plaza was a “communications wake up call” and admit they cannot be certain abuse doesn’t continue in their supply chain. That only 31% of factories reach standard.

Speaking generally, campaigners say only 2 out of 1600 Bangladesh factories since inspected have completed safety work. A former child factory worker saysSince the disaster, employees have to work harder. They have higher production targets. If they cannot fulfil them they have to work extra hours but with no overtime. It is very tough; they cannot go for toilet breaks or to drink water. They become sick“.

SOS messages

In 2014/15 a series of SOS messages were reported found in Primark clothing. Two garments with cries for help stitched into the labels were separately purchased in the Swansea store (discussed further below). South Wales Post

A customer in Belfast found a Chinese language note wrapped in a prison ID card in a pair of trousers. The note read:

SOS! SOS! SOS! We are prisoners in the Xiang Nan Prison of the Hubei Province in China. Our job inside the prison is to produce fashion clothes for export. We work 15 hours per day and the food we eat wouldn’t even be given to dogs or pigs. We work as hard as oxen in the field. We call on the international community to condemn the Chinese government for the violation of our human rights! Metro | Amnesty International

Another note claiming to be sent from a Chinese torture victim was found in a sock purchased from Primark’s Huddersfield store. Irish Mirror

Sugar: land grabs & malnutrition

Through subsidiaries, such as Illovo, ABF are the largest sugar producer in Africa.

There are repeated allegations of locals driven from land into hunger, as customary land rights are usurped by corporations and corrupt officials. Security forces & Police are used to evict villagers. SOMO | Oxfam | Oakland Institute

In Malawi:

  • 400 subsistence farmers still battle in the courts to regain their land, leased by a local chief to Illovo in the 1970s. The Chisita district farmers were not consulted and driven off into unproductive hills. amaBhungane
  • Without Thom Chipakuza villager’s knowledge their land, some previously sold to a local administrator, often never paid for, was sold on to Illovo. Maize crops were destroyed as the land was seized for sugar cane. Farm Radio Weekly
  • 2000 villagers in Chikhwawa were driven from land into hunger, using tear gas, rubber bullets and trespassing charges so Illovo production might expand. IRIN
  • In Dwangwa evictions were enforced by police with sticks and guns as Illovo expanded production. Some villagers were left starving. BBC

In Mali: Illovo were involved in the wider expropriation of land from smallholders. Farmers from 35 villages are suing the government. The details of leases given by the government to foreign investors are demanded. Illovo pulled out citing political instability. IPS News | FarmLandGrab

In Swaziland: 3,000 impoverished sugar workers opposed intimidation by military and security forces to demand improved wages. The local sugar industry is joint owned by Illovo and Swaziland’s “despotic monarch Mswati III, who has banned political parties and unions. IUF | IUF

Zambia: tax evasion & “undernutrition”

Using companies in Mauritius, Switzerland and Ireland AFB paid “virtually no corporate tax” on £123m profit made in Zambia. Payments for services were made to an Irish company with no employees. ABF also secured preferential tax arrangements with the Zambian authorities. TaxResearch | Guardian | Zambian Watchdog

Alexander Chikwanda was an Illovo board-member and the Zambian Finance Minister.

In a country where over a third of child deaths are related to undernutrition, we estimate that the tax-haven transactions of just this one British headquartered food multinational has deprived the Zambian public purse of a sum over 14 times larger than the UK aid provided to Zambia to combat hunger and food insecurity in the same period.ActionAid

Corporate PR: the truth is buried there

Of course, ABF challenge, if not vigorously deny, most (not all) allegations here. In the world of corporate PR, where reputations are managed, purchased not earned, the truth can be hard to discern, buried deep in web pages and newspaper articles placed by public relation professionals. This post took time to research. I will briefly highlight how PR seemed to manage two allegations made here.

Primark On The Rack

Primark questioned one 45 second clip of the 2008 BBC Panorama documentary. Primark made a compelling case this clip was fake, which was denied by the producer and award winning journalist Dan McDougall. However, after an extensive three year campaign by Primark the BBC Trust decided this clip could not be proved authentic and the BBC apologised.

Primark conflated this ruling to discredit all the claims made in the film and built a PR profile of an aggrieved innocent.

SOS Messages

As outlined above there were four SOS messages found in Primark garments. Primark quickly traced the sewn label messages, making a compelling argument the supply chain proved these were a hoax. Again, incidents were conflated. I didn’t find Primark unambiguously deny the authenticity of the Chinese notes, instead an evasive response,  the investigation hanging.

My other posts on Garden Bridge sponsors:

Ian Taylor, the Garden Bridge and war

Glencore, bringing the Garden Bridge and child labour together


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