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Tue 12 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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The danger of irresponsibility

Many retailers in the Middle East appear to be more committed to maximising profits than contributing to social welfare.

The price of greatness is, apparently, responsibility, yet many retailers in the Middle East appear to be more committed to maximising profits than contributing to social welfare.

Proposals by MPs to introduce subsidised rates on commodities for Bahrainis in a bid to curb rising crime rates were met by hostile responses from retailers.

The idea, described as 'racist' by one human rights official, would fast result in a divided country, in which a consumer's spend at the cash register would be determined by their nationality.

The pandemonium after news of the dual pricing scheme broke out also turned the spotlight to the polarised economy in Bahrain, as societies responsible for the rights of migrant workers, the hardest hit if the system was rolled out, slammed the possibility of their shopping budgets being placed under even further pressure.

There has been an age-old gulf between the have-nots and the have-a-lots in this region, yet retailers are more concerned with the latter as they unveil the latest NPDs and high-end delicatessens.

This region's industry needs to face the music and realise that being a socially responsible company involves more than occasional donations to charities, tie-ups with community events and earning green kudos for stocking a few recyclable bags.

Saudi Arabia-based Al Sadhan Trading's pledge to increase job opportunities for locals in Riyadh at its new hypermarket is admirable, yet more can be done. UK chain Tesco opened its largest store as part a pilot scheme for the government-supported Underserved Markets (USM) project, which argues that large retailers can regenerate seriously deprived areas and 20% of staff are local, long-term unemployed people or people with a disability.

Let's face it, staff retention in the UAE is a persistent grievance, and schemes like Tesco's - renowned for sustaining local employment - should be upheld as a model of the power for change here, and seems a more viable alternative to fighting crime than higher pricing for expatriates.

Across the globe, retail groups are creating new job titles to drive their corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies.

After hiring their new directors of corporate and social responsibility and chief ethics officers, bosses are brushing up on their carbon footprints and how well their Third World manufacturers are treated.

For cynics proclaiming, 'We're trying to run a business,' CSR has also helped retailers to attract talented graduates.

Social responsibility is voluntary; it is about going above and beyond what is called for by the law, yet it also about peace of mind for retail bosses who previously dismissed the idea of going the extra mile to develop their employees' careers and satisfy consumers from all income groups.

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