Staking The Moral High Street

Primark turns down £30m windfall from job retention bonus, The Guardian, July 12 2020, Gwyn Topham

How Primark cornered the feel good factor

“Primark will not take up the bonus offered last week by the government for taking back furloughed workers into full employment, declining a potential windfall of about £30m.

The high-street clothing chain, which is majority-owned by the billionaire Weston family, said it “shouldn’t be necessary” for it to take advantage of the scheme unveiled by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in his summer statement last week.

Under the scheme companies can be paid a job retention bonus of £1,000 for every worker brought back from furlough – the scheme that has already seen the taxpayer pick up the wage bill for millions of workers under extraordinary measures announced in March.”

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Through the WI Lens

Who would have expected a fast-fashion retailer to be the one capturing the moral high ground? This news story describes how Primark, a company owned by Associated British Foods which is best known for its cheap T-shirts and affordable accessories, has let it be known that it will not be claiming cash from the Government for not making employees redundant. The £1,000-a-head scheme announced by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak was designed to provide an incentive to companies to hold on to staff who were furloughed during lockdown. But for those who intended to keep them on anyway, it offers an unexpected windfall of the type that few corporate treasurers tend to view askance. So Primark undoubtedly won itself some worthwhile PR brownie points by being the first big company to look this particular gift horse in the mouth, in spite of having lost an estimated £800 million during lockdown. And it has thrown down the gauntlet to every other big business not in dire straits to follow suit. This comes after Ikea publicly vowed to repay furlough money to governments around the world; and it puts the spotlight on what role such moral and public-interest decisions play for the stakeholders of the company in question. First there’s a brand enhancement. Which consumer wouldn’t feel better buying from a company that has shown it is driven by more than profit, and lived up to the values it espouses? Then there are those employees, for whom it signals that it didn’t need a bribe to keep them on, and perhaps there really is an ethos of ‘family’ underpinning the company they work for. And then the decision makers: we all feel better when we act with decency, kindness and humility. On such fragile foundations are built the first steps towards a more ethical kind of business, and who knows what virtuous circles might result?

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