It would be easy to deride the actress Minnie Driver for all sorts of reasons - this is a woman whose career has certainly had its share of ups and downs, and she's still only 32. To promote herself, Minnie has been photographed at countless fashion parties, shop openings, film premieres and award ceremonies over the past year, and to her credit has never failed to look anything other than perky, bright and positive. But last week Minnie Driver
stopped being little more than a fashion footnote for gossip columnists, with the announcement that when she'd finished filming The Phantom of the Opera she would be off to Cambodia to work in a sweatshop, making a documentary about her experiences.
The campaign to highlight the appalling human rights abuses and scandalous wages paid by large clothing chains in developing countries has been gathering momentum for several years. Log on to behindthelabel.org and you find a highly professional online news magazine cataloguing the fight to get fair wages and decent working conditions for garment workers all over the world. From Gap to H&M to Nike, high-street retailers are under the spotlight from well-organised campaigners, and now face legal battles in many of the countries where they are major employers, from Cambodia, Indonesia and Bangladesh to El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. The anti-Gap movement really got started at the World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle back in 1999 when demonstrators burnt Gap trousers. Since then there have been calls to boycott their products at Christmas and the first day of every month was designated an anti-Gap day of action in the US. There's even a website for protesters, gapsucks.org. A couple of years ago Gap profits took a knock, but this could have been due to competition, rather than ethical awareness on the part of their customers.
Gap, with more than 130 branches, is in every major British high street, and surveys have consistently shown that consumers aren't really too bothered about how or where their favourite brands are made. And while Gap promised more transparency in its dealings with workers, it has made public only a handful of the reports on conditions in the 3,600-plus factories it works with. Perhaps Minnie Driver's brave little gesture might just start to turn the tide, but somehow I fear that she is not an important enough figure really to make much impact.
Sean Combs is another matter. Last week demonstrators at the site of his soon-to-open store in Fifth Avenue in New York revealed the appalling conditions suffered by workers in a factory in Honduras where women are paid just 15 cents an hour to make shirts for his clothing range which sell at $40 (£23.50) in fashionable department stores. Of course, the American National Labor Committee, which shamed Mr Combs, also has ulterior motives, seeking to bring more manufacturing work back into the US from Third World countries where labour is cheaper. Nevertheless, it scored a direct hit on the publicity front and shamed a well-known black multimillionaire with working-class roots, who has made a fortune by selling merchandise to impressionable young people. But will we see P Diddy take off his mink and diamonds and boogie on down to Haiti, Honduras or Lesotho to spend 16 hours a day hunched over a sewing machine, while having to apply for a pass to use the toilet? Somehow I don't think so.
We certainly won't be seeing David Bowie or his wife Iman postponing his forthcoming British tour (it kicks off on 17 November) to pop into a Tommy Hilfiger factory and check that the new H brand they are being paid a fortune to promote is made in decent conditions. Hilfiger, along with Gap, has consistently been accused of exploiting its workforce, but when David told the press last week "I very much admire Tommy's work", I don't believe he was referring to the pitiful wages paid to women sewing those sweatpants and jackets. But David and Iman (who controversially accepted a fat cheque to promote De Beers diamonds, claiming their mine workers were treated fairly) have long been a credibility-free zone. Mr Bowie lost that when he came up with the Glass Spider catastrophe and followed it up with the appalling Tin Machine. It's fascinating that the erstwhile King of Cool can even feel he has to pretend he's endorsing Hilfiger because it's fashionable, when anyone can tell you it certainly is not.
But all this raises the question: at what cost fashion? Workshops are being held in American high schools to educate young people about how their favourite brands are made, but the campaign to "unbrand" today's youth is doomed to failure. And would it not have made more impact for Minnie Driver to go no further than London, Leicester or Manchester, where thousands of women are working in appalling conditions sewing clothes for every high-street chain and top fashion designer in this country? The UK clothing industry generates £8bn annually, and most of its 220,000 workers are women, many earning the minimum wage of £4.50. But only 60,000 workers have union membership, and it is estimated that considerably more than 20,000 sweatshops operate right here in the UK where workers are not unionised or are piece-workers sewing at home for rip-off rates. Are customers at Topshop or Dorothy Perkins interested in how these retailers are able to offer keenly priced versions of high fashion so quickly? And do we care that retailers such as Marks & Spencer are taking clothing manufacture abroad, where they can evade our minimum wage? It's funny how much we care what kind of life a chicken has had as we fuss over boxes of pretty green free-range eggs in the supermarket, but somehow we don't apply the same standards to an Asian woman sewing our bras and pants in deepest London E1.
The last post
I've become an expert in the workings of the Royal Mail, having moved three times in the past year and had the unfortunate experience of trying to deal with its redirection service. I have a file 12 inches thick, detailing its terminal ineptitude. No one has even given me a name or direct line to complain to, even when my mail all went missing for four weeks in August. I have spent days speaking to people in call centres in the North, and being given fax numbers that don't work to send my complaint to. Even though I paid a considerable sum of money for redirection, the correct labels were rarely used - on one occasion, someone even opened my bank statement, stuck it in another envelope and wrote my address by hand on it. Recently an operative decided to redirect my mail by writing Clerkenwell Road in a shaky hand on the envelopes, when I don't even live there. Last Tuesday I received all the post for my house and everyone who lived within a hundred yards - it just got flung through my letterbox.
Occasionally, the Royal Mail has admitted a mistake, and sent me a booklet of six first-class stamps as recompense for the hours I have spent trying to find my post. Luckily, I now have a friend in the local sorting office, and his direct line, but one can't help wondering if this is a service which desperately needs radical surgery.
Donate £2,500 to Gloucester Cathedral and your likeness can be captured for posterity as a gargoyle on the building. Why stop there? All cathedrals should be part of this fund-raising venture, and I'd like to find a slot on the front of Wells. Or, instead of handing out honours to worthies such as Jamie Oliver, let's turn them into gargoyles. Can someone start a fund so that gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell can be immortalised? Or will Rowan Williams have to set up a task force to decide who can be gargoyled and who can't?Reuse content