Leading article: Fashion disaster

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The Independent Online

It has always been silly to argue that public figures should stick to what they are good at and keep their opinions on controversial matters to themselves. Often, the famous have something interesting to say on matters that do no intrude directly on their professional expertise. Often, but not always. The opinions of the fashion designer Jeff Banks on the history of the working classes, unfortunately, come into the latter category. Mr Banks argues that, despite being reviled by received opinion, clothing "sweatshops" have been a liberating phenomenon historically.

He cites the Jewish community a century ago in the East End, where sweatshops enabled them to use their skills "to carve out a living" and "haul themselves out of poverty".

Britain's industrialising economy was indeed a great liberator of human potential, as Mr Banks argues.

But this was only one side of the development coin.

Mr Banks fails to acknowledge the role played by the union movement and compassionate politicians in steadily bettering conditions and pay for low-skilled workers. It took more than the raw power of the market to deliver prosperity. Unsanitary and inhumane work places have always been lethal. Work is certainly a magnificent thing, but not if it kills you in the process.

Sweatshops are not something that we should look back on with fondness.

And nor should we make excuses for their existence in the developing world today.

When it comes to this topic, at least, Mr Banks would probably be advised to stick to designing.