Sunday, 28 April 2013

High Street Fashion - Cheap Clothing At What Cost?

In the last few days it has been impossible to avoid the terrible scenes in Dhaka, Bangladesh where 360 people are dead and hundreds more still missing, presumably under tons of twisted steel and concrete, following the collapse of a clothing factory.

Despite cracks appearing in the structure on Tuesday, management ignored concerns and forced staff to carry on working the following day or have their pay docked. Company stooges then approved building safety the day before the collapse. Building owner Mohammed Sohel Rana has now been arrested along with three factory owners and two engineers but surely this is just the tip of the iceberg.

This tragedy isn't just another far off disaster we can shake our heads and go back to our cornflakes. The factory has links to well established high street retailers Primark, Matalan and Mango so there is a good chance you may have some of the offending factory's handiwork hanging in your closet.. It highlights a thorny issue, one which the West has gamely ignored for years, namely that the sweat shops of the 3rd World make most of the clothes on our backs.

Is this disregard for workers safety a byproduct of the West's insatiable appetite for disposable fashions or is the developing world's desperation to better itself by exploiting its workers the root cause?

I am reminded of the Panorama documentary Primark On The Rack, originally aired in 2008, which conducted an undercover investigation on the ubiquitous high street fashion retailer's dubious manufacturing processes.

Primark are a fashion success story with over 160 stores in the U.K and boast a rapid expansion throughout Europe. Famed for "disposable fashion", items are so cheap they can be worn once and thrown away, T-Shirts sell for £3 and jeans for £8. The are quick to ape cat-walk fashions and can do so for a fraction of the price.  Some of their range isn't actually that bad and I'll be honest, in my moments of weakness I have bought the odd pair of pants.

Many say Primark are a prime example of West's penchant for waste and disregard for worker exploitation in far off lands.  To commemorate their status as the Cruella De Vil of the retail world they were awarded the dubious accolade of "Least Ethical Retailer 2005" by Ethical Consumer Magazine. But who cares about a no-name award given out by a bunch of hippies? We all want cheap clothes right?

Rattled by this bad P.R, Primark trumpeted a change in their policy and proudly display their commitment to ethical standards at the entrance to their stores. The documentary exposes this as empty rhetoric. Reporter Tom Heap went undercover in the Indian textile industry to shine a light on the seedy sweatshops whose slavelike conditons are the sole reason you can buy embroidered dresses for £15.

In the labyrinthine slums of Delhi mass produced garments are ordered with very little lead time forcing Indian suppliers to get shipments ready using illegal outsourced child labour. According to Heap, who posed as an industry buyer, children as young as ten have to work long hours in squalid conditions for peanuts (17p/35c an hour was the wage quoted). India has a huge problem with poverty and many of the population live conditions that those in the West would consider subhuman. With wages this paltry it is hardly surprising.

I remember being at my folk's house when I watched this and whilst I pontificated on my best Guardianista soapbox about the appalling conditions and sub-standard pay my mum came up with a couple of salient points. First of all, one could argue that if these big retailers didn't place orders in third world countries they would literally have no jobs and no income whatsoever. Bangladesh for instance relies almost exclusively on its textile industry to supports its economy. Primark itself says it creates work for about 2 million workers in the developing world in one form or another. If they thought conditions were bad now what position would countries like India, Honduras or Vietnam be in without any western investment?

When I complained about the fact that these kids should be in school I was told that we shouldn't expect our values to be reflected in our cultures in the same way. We have the luxury of legislation forcing kids to go to school and a social system that helps the margins of society. In effect we have it very easy in the West. With no social services, Indian parents see large families as an insurance policy to help earn money and look after them when they get old.

The answer to these cultural and socio-economic problems could possibly lie in the Fairtrade model. Start paying a bit more for our clothes and instead of the money going to the multi-nationals the locals could get a fair wage and afford for their kids to go to school. Despite fair trade coffee and sugar being available on most supermarket shelves I have yet to see a Fairtrade clothing shop.

Its easy to see why Primark, with their emphaiss on low prices, take the lion's share of abuse on the topic of fair trade but take a second to look at what you are wearing today. I just did. Topman jeans made in India. North Face fleece made in Indonesia. Berghaus jacket made in Thailand. Onisuka Tiger/Asics made in China. Its not just the cheap brands that contract out developing nations. Everyone is at it.

Personally I feel it is unjust to pin all the blame on the West for outsourcing its manufacturing processes.  Local governments shoulder some of the responsibility for their absence of regulation and paucity of labour law that effectively puts the interests of the manufacturers above that of their citizens. Comprehensive, well policed employment regulations what stop abuses fairly quickly, but they would drive up production costs and in turn that would drive business elsewhere.

Banning products from countries with questionable safety records is not the answer as this would be a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water? If things are this bad now what kind of conditions would Bangladesh's workers would have to endure if Primark et al pulled out?

I'm not naive. I look for a bargain like the best of them. The reality is that in these credit crunching times there is even less inclination for the West to change the status quo and for the likes of you or I to start paying more for our clothes, shoes or electronics. If Primark step out there a long line of retailers waiting and willing to fill the void.

Friday, 19 April 2013

TV Review: Panorama - North Korea Undercover

As undercover reporting goes its hardly up there with Donal MacIntyre's tattooed two year infiltration of the Chelsea Headhunters or Antonio Salas learning Arabic, converting to Islam and getting circumcised in order to infiltrate terrorist organisations.

No, in Panorama - North Korea Undercover (BBC1) shouty documentarian John Sweeney manages to impregnate the secretive womb of communism by growing a bit of a beard and nodding his head in a professorial manner. Let's hope North Korea's long distance nukes are as effective as their border controls.

Judging by the media furore generated by his masquerading as LSE history teacher on a study trip, I was half expecting Sweeney to have offered up LSE students as free labour for the Korean gulags. The reality is much more prosaic. Sweeney just went along for the ride on the same lame coach tour as the students and filmed it. His guide offers words of reassurance for those tourists worried about security.

"Our bus has the mark of the Korean International Travel Company so the Americans won’t strike our bus. Ha ha .  .  .’

Despite Sweeny's attempts to ramp up the jeopardy,

”We’ve seen loads more soldiers in town can feel the tension rising”

no one seemed to be in the least bit of danger during his eight day visit.

In fact for such a secretive society they seem relatively lax in their security. On the bus, despite repeatedly being asked not to take photos of the poverty stricken Koreans scrabbling about the drab countryside (they do anyway) the tour group are free to wave their cameras about during the scheduled stops and video whatever they like.

Some of these stops are laughable staged. A farm devoid of animals or crops, a bottling plant without any bottles or a pristine hospital that doesn't actually have any patients in it. This was the only point where Sweeney has the balls to conduct any challenging journalism.

‘Tell the doctor we’re not fools. We haven’t seen any patients."

Whilst their enemies to the South offer all the trapping of a prosperous, free western society North Korea's tin pot regime isn't even able to keep the lights on. Pyongyang suffers constant city wide power outages on a daily basis. Is this really a country we should be worried about?

Yes, according to North Korean expert, Professor Brian Myers, who suggests we should take them seriously in case their rhetoric inadvertently turns to war by accident.

‘We may see a thermo-nuclear war but it wouldn’t be because the North Koreans wanted it. It’s not their plan to unleash that, but it might come to that as a result of a disastrous miscalculation.’

Most telling are the stories from defectors talking about the work camps where bodies are buried in mass graves and the reality of living in this totalitarian regime is chilling. In South Korea Sweeney interviews an escaped doctor who explains that rank is no guarantee of protection in this oppressive society.

‘If you as a doctor had said, “We need more money for medicine for the patients”, what would have happened?’ ‘They would kill me that very day"

Offering a peak into this Orwellian country, Sweeney documentary is interesting enough from a voyeuristic prospective, but it's hardly ground breaking. Yes, Kim Jong Un comes from a long line of despotic nutcases. Yes, North Korea is a paranoid and warlike state. Yes, its inhabitants are routinely brain washed by 24hr propaganda. This is all common knowledge.

North Korea's "mystery" may have more to do with the fact it is such an utterly depressing place, very few people have actually bothered to visit it.

You can watch it on iPlayer for the next 12 months

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Exploding Helicopter - The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Bill Murray is Steve Zissou, a puffed up Jacque Cousteau wannabe, who was once the toast of the movie world but whose star status is on the wane. His glamorous undersea adventures had transformed him into a public figure with cover stories and celebrity endorsements (Adidas no less). His “Team Zissou” membership rings were more sought after than Blue Peter badges (ask your Dad).

Fame is fickle and the shine then began to peal from his celebrity once his films lost their allure with an increasingly disinterested public. Now cutting a pitiful figure he scrounges around for funding and releases his kitschy documentaries to ever diminishing returns. His wife (Angelica Houston) is on the verge of leaving him and his successful nemesis Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) seems to pop up everywhere just to rub his nose in his decline.

To make matters worse, during the making of his latest documentary his best friend (Seymour Cassel) is eaten by the elusive, and perhaps even fictional, Jaguar Shark. This leads Zissou and his ragtag crew of oddballs on one last adventure to track down the mysterious creature, avenge his friend and perhaps offer them a chance at redemption.

Director Wes Anderson follows Rushmore and The Royal Tenebaums with another bittersweet comedy/drama dealing with his usual preoccupations of age and strained family relationships albeit this time set on the high seas and coloured with his usual off kilter sensibilities.

The story’s gentle humour and trademark quirks won’t be to everyone’s tastes and the plot does kind of meander along but it’s rather like being on a rolling river in a foreign country looking at the strange flora and fauna passing by. You end up being pleasantly surprised by every quirk that emerges from around the bend.

One such curveball is the helicopter explosion that graces the finale. Zissou and his long lost “son” Ned (Owen Wilson) fly out to sea in search of the Jaguar Shark from the deck of their ship, the Belafonte, in a bright yellow sea chopper.

Due to Zissou’s funding problems it seems the helicopter has not been maintained in quite a while and as soon as it is at cruising altitude they hear a snap which Ned believes is the pin on the rotor mechanism. There are no histrionics or flashy pyrotechnics, just a shot of Zissou’s Adidas as the sea looms up from below them. The stricken chopper and its passengers are then on a one way journey to Wetsville.

Artistic merit

As to be expected from Wes Anderson the scene is chock full of imagination. Rather then the easier and obvious ways to destroy a helicopter, be that CGI or old school explosives, Anderson chooses to try the less is more approach.

As the chopper crash lands in the water instead of the normal fire/flame combo the explosion is depicted using an avant garde fast cut of bubbles fizzing and filling the screen spliced with flashes of red and a bizarre a flash back sequence of the Owen Wilson in a cinema auditorium.

Instead of the usual crash/bang of an explosion there is just a high pitched hum and some weird atmospherics. Once the chopper has “exploded” we cut to Murray, cradling a stricken Wilson as burning debris bob around them. Exploding helicopter purists may be aghast at this unconventional direction but I found it all rather refreshing.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Its not often we see choppers go down due to inadequate maintenance. Not sure the insurance company will pay out on this one.

Do passengers survive?

Tragically, and in contravention of Exploding Helicopter’s Second Law of filmmaking, one of the good guys gets killed. Ned drowns after a head injury overcomes him, after first making a few oblique indie references, in the arms of the helpless Zissou.

On top of fabulous performance by Murray and Goldblum this is an ensemble piece for which you would struggle to put together a better cast. Zissou’s crew of misfits includes a rare comic role for Willem Defoe as German engineer Klaus and Cate Blanchett as a National Geographic reporter imbedded within the team. Michael Gambon pops up as louche film producer and musician Seu Jorge appears as safety expert Pele dos Santos, who spends most of his time randomly playing samba versions of David Bowie songs on deck. It is completely bizarre but it works.

Mercifully this film is a CGI free zone with Anderson aiming for a hand made look with his emphasis on colour saturation and stop motion animation for the undersea elements. The whole thing feels like a pop-up movie made in kindergarten by skilled toddlers with film degrees.

I found it charming but could easily see why would not appeal to mainstream audience. You either buy into Anderson’s whimsy or you don’t. For those who didn’t enjoy it I’m sure another Adam Sandler movie will stink along in the near future which better satisfies your tastes.


When a movie shows this much charm and innovation it would be churlish to criticise it. So I won’t.

Favourite Quote:

Festival Director: (asking a question about the Jaguar Shark): That's an endangered species at most. What would be the scientific purpose of killing it?

Steve Zissou: Revenge.

Interesting Fact:

Most of the film was shot on the Italian Riviera where Bill Murray became a certified diver during the filming of the movie, logging over 40 diving hours between takes.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

TV Review: The Toughest Place To Be...A Bus Driver: Manila BBC2

For those in the UK who define "hardship" as not being able to afford Sky Sports or a second foreign holiday the day-to-day reality depicted in The Toughest Place To Be...A Bus Driver hits you like a slap in the face.

As part of the fantastic BBC series exploring difficult working conditions in the developing world, this programme focuses on Manila, officially the most densely populated city on earth. Much of its 20 million inhabitants live cheek by jowl in grinding poverty and the city was no doubt chosen due to its appalling road conditions and chaotic infrastructure. The producers no doubt thought they would get plenty of mileage watching a naive Brit flounder in the midst of Manila's madness.  Little would they have expected such an emotional human story to emerge.

A couple of years ago London bus driver Josh West visited the Philippines to trade jobs with local "Jeepney" driver Rogelio Castro to see what it is was like to ply his trade on the mean streets of Manila. Its is fair to say the experience was life changing for them both.

Before arrival, Josh admits to knowing little about the Philippines other than the infamous Imelda Marcos' shoe collection.  On the face of it their lives could not be more different.  Whilst Josh has a comfortable job driving a state of the art £35K Routemaster through London's well maintained streets, his conditions protected by a myriad of employment and driving regulations, Rogelio toils away for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week in a clapped out minibus through the chaotic, congested streets of Manila.

His gruelling days, where he acts as driver, mechanic, cleaner and ticket collector, earn him about £8 a day which is often not enough to pay for his wife's medication. Rogelio lives in a ramshackle, self built property  with tiny rooms inhabited by ever growing collection of extending family.

What made the show powerful and pushed it beyond the bounds of the realms of poverty pornography was the human relationship that played out between Josh and Rogelio. Despite only staying with him for 10 days the visit made a profound impression on the Londoner.

"When you see someone working that hard, how can you turn your back on them?"

On Josh's first visit Rogelio broke down when explaining the arduous treadmill his life had become and his inability to escape from the crushing weight of poverty.  He was basically running just to stand still. Josh was overcome with emotion as he realised that despite them both being bus drivers only one of them was destined for a life of drudgery.

‘If I was born here I’d be in the same situation as you. It’s just by chance that I was born in London‘.

Rogelio might be struggling but he is positively middle class in comparison to some of Manila's poor. There was one section of VT which turned my stomach and gave an indication into how far reaching and desperate the poverty has become in the shanty towns of Manila. Josh went into the slums to witness the phenomena of "pagpag", a form of food recycling . 

Scavengers will collect discarded and half eaten chicken remnants from the garbage cans outside Manila's numerous fast food restaurants and root through them to pick out the bits they can re-use (mostly bones, cartilage with the odd bit of rancid chicken attached).  They then sell these on to pagpag "restaurants" who will recook the detritus and sell it on to slum dwellers for pennies.  This is likely to be their main meal of the day.  It is truly a shocking state of affairs.

Despite seemingly being worlds apart the 10 days Rogelio spent teaching Josh the Tao of a Filipino bus driver had transformed their relationship into something of a "bromance" with them exchanging emails and photos after Josh returned back to the UK. Deeply affected by his visit Josh decided he would do something practical in order fund the one request Rogelio had for a better life. 
  I won't spoil it but Josh makes an emotional return to Manila two years later to reunite with Rogelio his adopted "brother" to see how his life has changed since the documentary first aired (he is something of a local celebrity now) and lays out his long term plan for Rogelio's family.  I must admit I don't know many people would make such a commitment after such a chance visit. Josh is a truly an inspirational character.

After years of being bombarded with images of poverty through Live Aid, Sport Relief, Red Nose Day it is testament to Josh and the programme creators for making an utterly engrossing documentary  packing more punch than any celebrity endorsed hand wringing I have ever seen. 

I urge you to watch the documentary on iPlayer and donate to Josh's Danceaid page that is attempting to raise money for Manila's street kids. After watching this documentary only those with a heart of stone could refuse such a request.