Primark's baby blues: Despite a birth outside a Birmingham branch, the high-street chain has once again found itself making headlines about its labour practices

It's where this country confronts its embarrassing failings as a supposedly developed nation


Around 14,000 babies were born in the UK last week, but only one of them inhaled its first breath outside the Birmingham New Street branch of Primark. The unnamed mother went into a speedy labour shortly after exiting the store, when witnesses said they could see "the shape of the baby's head in her leggings". That's Primark leggings for you; one wash and they're basically see-through.

Mother and baby were transferred to the local hospital where they're reportedly doing well, but Primark's PR department may be slower to recover from the shock. Only last week it looked as if they'd successfully countered the latest sweatshop controversy. A Primark investigation concluded that the "cry for help" labels found in two different items of clothing were most likely a hoax originating in the UK. But that did little to calm campaigners' wider concerns about the labour practices, and now the high-street chain has once again found itself making headlines.

In Britain, the nation of NHS-funded antenatal care, a woman going into labour in the street might always have been newsworthy. Yet if her waters had broken just a few metres up the road, outside a Pret A Manger, or a Ryman, would the retailer's name have appeared in the story quite so prominently? Primark is different because Primark is a kind of porthole from Britain to Bangladesh; it's where this country confronts its embarrassing failings as a supposedly developed nation.

Scoff if you want to, but there was a time when Primark – or "Primarni", if you please – had a certain air of chic. I was brought up to understand that coats and shoes were something you bought once a year, from M&S, obviously. Then, in the mid-2000s, Primark arrived on every British high street. Almost overnight, new coats, shoes and any other item fickle fashion demanded could be bought on a whim.

We soon learned that cheap clothes have hidden costs. The BBC's 2008 Panorama documentary Primark: On the Rack included footage of child labour and, by the time it had been shown to be "most likely" fabricated, the thrill of the bargain was forever tarnished by guilt. When in 2013 the Rana Plaza building collapse resulted in the deaths of more than 1,127 Bangladeshi garment workers, it was Primark which took the brunt of the headlines, despite the fact that suppliers for posher shops including Accessorize and Mango had also used the building.

Each one of these instances sparked calls for a shoppers' boycott, but all such boycotts come up against the same awkward obstacle: even in this wealthy country, there are far too many low-paid workers for whom "ethical consumerism" is another unobtainable luxury.

Actually, neither the National Garment Workers Federation, a union based in Dhaka, nor the UK-based campaign No Sweat advocates such action, which they fear would result in people losing their livelihoods. Instead, they are asking for the same thing that workers in the British retail industry deserve: a living wage paid for out of the employers' own profits.

A shocking look into the abyss

When was the last time you sat and did nothing? No catching up on work emails, no TV on in the background, no idly skimming Facebook on your iPhone – just you, alone with your thoughts? According to research by Virginia and Harvard universities, two-thirds of men and a quarter of women would rather give themselves a painful electric shock than endure time without diversion. That's not a hypothetical based on a survey answer, that's what really happened when subjects were left alone in a room with a button. One guy pressed it 190 times.

This same topic has been touched on previously by Louis CK, stand-up comedian and thinking-woman's crumpet (ask your girlfriend). "What the phones are taking away is the ability to just sit there," he told a chat show host last year. "That's being a person. Because, y'know, underneath everything in your life there's that thing, that 'forever empty'; that knowledge that it's all for nothing and you're all alone."

The "forever empty" line got a big laugh, would you believe, but it turns out the laugh's on Louis, because our existential despair is deeper than even that noted depressive could fathom. He thought this generation's obsession with technology was the problem, but this new study suggests otherwise. The subjects' ages ranged from 18 to 77 and the results were consistent, regardless of smartphone use.

Boredom is not just the absence of something to do, but a destructive force in its own right. We will do almost anything to avoid doing nothing, including inflicting physical pain. That's the bad news. The good news is, if I'm ever sitting alone in a basement comedy club and Louis CK walks through the door, I now have the perfect chat-up line.

How that pond is shrinking

As of last Thursday, it's possible to fly from London to New York (or vice versa) for just £149, but really, why bother? As crossing the Atlantic has become easier, two once-distinct cities have grown gradually more alike. How are we now to distinguish between one English-speaking rip-off-merchant metropolis and another?

As any Londoner will tell you, the most authentic New York bagels are in Brick Lane and, as any New Yorker will retort, everyone in Brick Lane has long since moved to Brooklyn. Also Chelsea is still Chelsea, wherever you go.

'House of Cards' in the cold

The Russian government may be guilty of several human-rights violations, but preventing you from getting your House of Cards fix? No, that isn't one of them.

Russia was the only country to veto a request from the show's producers to film in the UN Security Council chamber. But, far from this being a devious "power-play", as one newspaper suggested, might it not be that Russian diplomat Mikael Agasandyan simply had an all-too-rare desire to uphold the dignity of his office?


More money than imagination. It's the only explanation for why Tory party donor Lubov Chernukhin would pay £160,000 for a tennis match with David Cameron and Boris Johnson. If I'd a spare £160,000 for the Government, they'd be bouncing on that zip wire quicker than you can say "dancing monkey".

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