Notes From a Small Planet

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Cheap sweaters

Remember that classic 'Monty Python' sketch in which the four old Yorkshiremen sit around boasting about how hard things were for them when they were young, each trying to outdo the others with wilder and wilder exaggerations? It's a great sketch, in which the characters say things like:
'We had to go to the factory seven days a week and work sixteen hours a day'.

But here's something that isn't funny at all. BBC investigators working for the 'Panorama' TV programme have discovered a sweatshop in Cambodia where illegal under-age workers actually do labour for up to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. What's more, if you're wearing anything bearing the Nike or Gap trademark, it might just have been those 12-15 year olds who made it. Both corporations employ June Textiles, the factory visited by the BBC reporters.

When challenged by the BBC, both Nike and Gap claim that they were unaware of the under-age workers. Nike spokesman Todd McKean made the following curious assertion:
'Unfortunately, we've found on occasion in various places isolated instances [of child labour]. I would say this is isolated.'

So the situation in the Cambodian factory is an isolated incident. It's just that Nike have found this sort of thing going on all over the place several times before. Thanks, Mr McKean! That makes the position much clearer!

Of course, both Nike and Gap are at pains to distance themselves from unethical manufacturing practices. Nike even now say that they might, possibly stop using June Textiles in December if the conditions there don't improve. But one can't help wondering how it is that such sophisticated operators as Nike and Gap keep suddenly, to their apparent dismay, discovering that their overseas trading partners are not as ethical as they would like.

In the Panorama report, Neil Kearney of 'The International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers' Federation' observes:
'They [the corpoations] insist on high standards as far as quality is concerned. There's absolutely no reason why they cannot insist on the same standards for working conditions.'

Let's hope they do just that. Otherwise, some people might be cynical enough to believe that Nike and Gap's executives don't really give a damn what happens to children in faraway factories as long as their manufacturing costs are kept as low as possible.

Family fortunes

Many of the reports I've read about the present American presidential election campaign have commented on the similarities between the two main candidates. TV' debates' between the two main candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush, have reportedly been rendered rather dull by the fact that the two men appear to agree on just about almost everything. Many Americans must feel that they are actually being given very little choice at all.

Increasingly, living in Britain, I feel the same way. Both the Labour and Conservative parties would tell you that they believe in something called 'the family'. But it seems that neither would support any move that might give people's right to have a family life precedence over employers' 'rights' to work employees as hard as possible.

Baroness Jay, Britain's Women's Minister, has been lobbying the Government to give new parents the statutory right to return to work part-time after having children, if they so choose. Unfortunately, various business organisations have been lobbying the Government equally hard to reject the idea.

The Government has sided with the business interests against its own Minister. Next month, when Trade Secretary Stephen Byers unveils what the Government is billing as new 'family friendly' policies for the workplace, Baroness Jay's proposal will be firmly ruled out.

Now, British trade unions are considering taking the matter to the European courts, arguing that the UK Government's stance contravenes Europe-wide human rights legislation. Carolyn Jones of the Institute of Employment Rights has observed:
'You could argue that family-friendly policy and long working hours do not equate... and this could be against the right to family life.'

If Europe does intervene on the side of the workforce, it wouldn't be the first time that British employees had Europe to thank for marginally increasing their legal rights.

One of the few things that does still divide the two main political parties in Britain is the matter of the nation's relationship with the European Community. The Conservatives tend to be deeply suspicious of the European institutions and the way that they 'interfere' in British affairs. Could this, I wonder, be because the European courts sometimes take the view that something can be wrong even if it is good for profit margins?


The wonderful sport of soccer is one of my favourite things in the world. The work of Andrew Lloyd Webber is one of my least favourite things in the world. He has made his fortune by writing music for people who don't really like music, but like the shallow grandeur of a big-budget theatrical spectacular. His work is all form and no content, with pretty and sometimes oddly familiar-sounding melodies in an evil alliance with the unthreatening, sentimental lyrics supplied by Tim Rice and a succession of other collaborators. He is to music what another Conservative peer, Jeffrey Archer, is to literature.

Imagine, then, how I felt when I heard that Webber had just co-written a new musical with a soccer theme. 'The Beautiful Game' tells the story of two friends in Northern Ireland. One is a Catholic and the other is a Protestant, and in a Northern Ireland riven with sectarian violence that makes them unlikely friends. But their shared love of soccer brings them together and helps them both to overcome their prejudices.

Appropriately enough, the musical itself is the product of an unlikely alliance, between Webber and a man who made his name with a stand-up comedy act full of withering satires on the Conservative government that ennobled Webber. The lyrics for the show have been written by Ben Elton, whose politics are still to the left of Britain's current Labour government.

Mr. Elton is an enormously talented man. He has written scripts for some of the most memorable British TV comedy shows of recent years, including 'The Young Ones' and 'Blackadder'. He has written film and theatre scripts, and had become a best-selling novelist. He has succeded in just about everything he has attempted.

But this, surely, is a challenge too far. Sorry, Ben... but I don't believe that even YOU can create something good while working with Webber. We'll see soon enough, when 'The Beautiful Game' has it's premiere... but the very idea of the show makes me want to reach for a red card.

Who benefits?

I don't intend to make a habit of using this column to tell you about my own life. After all, I have a perfectly good User-Journal on my h2g2 page if I feel the urge to do that. However, one aspect of my recent experiences has helped me to understand why we see so many homeless people begging on Britain's streets.

In Britain, there is a welfare system known as Housing Benefit, under which local authorities pay some, if not all, the rent of unemployed citizens. I have been without regular paid work recently, so when I moved back to my old home city of Bradford in May, I applied for the benefit.

It took me some time to assemble all the proof of eligibility quite rightly demanded by UK law to prevent fraud. Amongst other things, I had to obtain a copy of my birth certificate. But by mid-June I had successfully completed my application and proved its honesty beyond all reasonable doubt.

On Friday, October 13, I finally received a payment. It had taken four and a half months from my initial application. If I hadn't had a supportive family able to lend me the money for my rent over the summer, I'd most likely be out there begging right now instead of writing this.

Whenever I tried to pursue the matter throughout the summer, I was told that staff shortages were delaying my application. I did my best not to show my anger. I had to admire the fortitude of the unfortunate staff in the local authority's office, who had to defend the indefensible to queues of desperate, frustrated people every day. At least the Bradford council staff were willing to meet their customers, face to face, and I knew that in other parts of Britain the Housing Benefit offices will only deal with their clients over the phone.

The crazy Catch-22 at the centre of the whole mess is this:
Applications for Housing Benefit can be speeded up... but only if your landlord has instigated legal action to get you, the tenant, evicted. And if you've caused them so much trouble that they've gone to those lengths to get you out, are they then likely to be placated by a payment?

Hardly. So the Housing Benefit system is rather like a hospital that only admits patients if they're dying. And as a claim for it runs for a maximum of one year, next May I'll probably have to start the whole process again from scratch.

Ah well. For now, at least, I still have a roof over my head and a place to plug in my computer. So hopefully, I'll see you again in next week's 'Post'.


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