2014/05/28

Locally Based Textile Industry Initiatives sprout after Rama Plaza Factory Collapse | Bangladesh

A group of North American clothing companies established a new office in Dhaka this week,  to work locally on improving safety in Bangladesh's garment industry.

Twenty-six companies, retailers and brands have united as The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (The Alliance), which has hired 15 staff to implement tougher safety checks on its supplying factories. “It is an honor to formalize our presence in Dhaka, which will help speed the achievement of our ambitious goals for garment factory safety,” said Jeffrey Krilla, President of the Alliance.

The team will carry out worker and management safety training and will also scrutinise fire and structural safety in the factories were clothes for brands such as Primark and H&M are produced.

The problem is that hundreds of factories in Bangladesh are still found in converted residential buildings that are not fit for purpose or outright dangerous. “They often lack adequate fire escapes, alarms, first aid or fire-fighting equipment,” Jason Burke reported this week for the Guardian.

Pressure to deal with this issue has been strong since the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in April where over 1,100 lost their lives and many more were injured. And it’s not the only example where workers have been trapped and killed in Bangladesh factories in the recent year.

Phil Bloomer, the Executive Director of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre says global business lacks appropriate humanitarian safeguards: “The fact that those factories were locked and that people were desperate to get out; they knew their work was dangerous. To leave health and safety in the hands of those in H&M or GAP some 5 000 miles away, is not the way to deliver health and safety at the factory floor.”

The Rana Plaza tragedy sparked a tumultuous year of progress for workers’ rights in Bangladesh. The Alliance’s new headquarters will open its doors in Dhaka only about a week after the minimum wage in Bangladesh was raised by 77%. It’s now 5,300 taka (£41) following a labor dispute where worker’s protests forced about 250 garment factories to close. Muhammad Rumee Ali, managing director of enterprises and investment at BRAC said this week: “Now is the time for us to unite efforts across business, government, and civil society to create a new, sustainable standard for worker safety throughout Bangladesh.”


But the vision for the way forward is split. While the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety doesn’t involve worker’s unions in its negotiations and prefers voluntary targets for improving safety, another group is developing alongside. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (The Accord) is a legally binding agreement between international trade unions, Bangladesh trade unions, and over a hundred international companies which is campaigning for more accountable change. They criticize the work of The Alliance for being business as usual. “The Walmart/Gap scheme [The Alliance] preserves the very model that has failed workers for years and led to nearly two thousand deaths.”

2014/05/27

The answer for fed-up working chicks is mortar and bricks

Broke women are promised financial freedom through buying houses on their credit cards, Maria Evrenos investigates. 

“I know what it’s like to work hard, and never get anywhere”, Annie Sweet, 64, says gravely. It's followed by an unanimous sigh from the fifty or so women who have turned up to this free event called “Women in Wealth”. They have gathered in the red-carpeted suite under a glittering chandelier at the Guoman Hotel, London, looking for their golden opportunity.

The workshop is promoted as "a dedicated one-stop-training-programme for the discerning lady seeking to improve and protect her financial status”. It is hosted by Tigrent Learning, which charges for courses in wealth accumulation. But the options are few. The answer for fed-up working chicks is mortar and bricks.

“Who would like to have £20 000 on their account by the end of the year?” All hands shot towards the sky as if just maybe the money was going to be released from the ceiling. 

‘Financial Freedom’ from property investment
Mrs Sweet with her blow-dried hair, heels and pearls, is offering a way out of “the rat race”. She turned her financial life around after starting with property investment. From barely breaking even on her previous salaries, she is now demonstrating her new lifestyle by flickering her power point slides from one holiday picture to the next.

Mrs Sweet says: “If you don’t already have money, property is the way to go. It doesn’t matter if you have half a brain, dyscalculia, aren’t a U.K. citizen, have a terrible credit rating and no money”. 

This is not what the average mortgage adviser will tell you. Even with government schemes such as help-to-buy, or the more lenient of private mortgage agreements, you are expected to have at least a 5% deposit of the property’s value. And to be granted a loan for the rest you need a fairly large income and good credit history. 

As the independent mortgage adviser Adam Parker at Felicity J. Lord Estate Agents tells me: “If you don’t have that, why would anyone trust you to lend you all that money?”

What the Estate Agencies say
We’re sitting in his office on Upper Street in Islington - a street where almost one in three shops is an estate agency. It doesn’t get much more conventional than this; well-groomed men in shirts and ties, answering telephones in an open plan office. 

“To actually, in a legitimate way, become a property investor, you have to be a homeowner first, and then for the second property you have to put down a 25 per cent deposit”, Mr Parker clarifies.

Buying properties without any money
But Tigrent Learning is far from the only company offering paid short courses in the real estate business for people without any assets, following on from free introductory evenings. 

Fielding Financial Family has four ‘Free Property-Investing Seminars’ coming up this week. You might have seen the full-page ad in the Evening standard. “Maria Davies and her mastermind group of professional property investors will show you the exact money strategies they used to become financially free…” 

When I email them, they reassure me. “There are ways that you can buy property without using your own money.” 

Borrow money to make money
One way that Tigrent Learning teaches people how to do this is by using Bridging Loans. They tell you that you can find a property that is being sold “below market value” according to your own research, but which needs some decorating and a few renovations. You get a bridging loan to cover for both the purchase and the renovations. And then when you sell the property, you pay back the loans and the fees, and should still be able to make a hefty profit. 

But mortgage adviser Mr Parker says that it’s not as easy as that. “There isn’t really anything like “under market value”. Not in London. Maybe in Wigan, or Manchester, but not here.” 

And even though property most often rises in value, there is also a risk of the reversed happening. “What if the bubble bursts? You've taken out very high interest loans and you have to pay them back, quickly.”

Credit is cheap
But it’s not too surprising that we hear of this. After a few frugal years following the last world economic crash, it looks like credit is cheap again. And as Tigrent Learning’s DVD says: “Credit cards are essentially unsecured loans, and if you have one in your wallet, you have access to almost instant cash up to your credit limit. If you can get unsecured money from one source, why shouldn’t you be able to get it from another?”

“These are amazing”, says Emma, 35, a Tigrent Learning alumni, waving two handfuls of credit cards in front of the class. “I now call them investment cards. I used to buy shoes with them. Now I use them to buy of refurbish properties. And best thing, they’re available to everyone.” 


Work- a bad deal for women
In the midst of all this optimism that property investment can make you rich, regardless of your skills or assets, behind it all are some very gloomy truths presented about the current working climate in the U.K.  And as they point out - women are getting the worst deal out of traditional salary work. 

They earn on average about 10 per cent less than men and generally end up with a pension as much as £6,500 a year less than men, according to research by Prudential in 2013.

Real wages have been falling consistently since 2010, according to recent reports from the office for national statistics. But earning a passive income such as collecting rent from a property in this heated housing market makes up for the downfall. 

David Cameron’s rental income
Ironically, David Cameron could be seen as the perfect example. When he came to office in 2010 he tried to convince the country that “we are all in this together” and announced a pay cut of five per cent and a pay freeze for the next five years. 

But when he moved to Downing Street, he started to rent out his home in Notting Hill, earning up to £6,000 a month, according to an article in The Daily Mail. That makes up for the loss of salary. 

But whether the property market is open or not to those with very little means, remains an argument between the conventional estate agents and banks, and the workshops offered by private companies. 

See you in the Bahamas
Vivian, 32, was one of the women who signed up to Tigrent Learning’s property investment course. She is fed up with the long hours at her job as an accountant, seeing very little profits on her account at the end of each month. 

She says that she signed up to give herself a better chance. “I wanted a challenge. Something for me.”  And she wants the luxurious lifestyle; those tropical holiday photos. 


I tell her that I might see her on the course. She walks off to go catch the tube, but before she turns round and laughs, “I'll see you in the Bahamas!” 

The Punk Syndrome - Feature

Gritty documentaries, punk bands, and club nights are fighting for disabled people’s right to a rock n’ roll lifestyle if they so chose, writes Maria Evrenos.

Punk may have been born in London but the heroes of stage rage and leather jackets for the past year have been the Finnish band Pertti Kurikan’s Name Day (PKND). The band members, like most original punks in the likes of Sex Pistols, Clash and Ramones, throw tantrums, express vigorous sexual appetite, have a scornful outlook on society and are always sticking two fingers up to authority. The difference is that PKND’s members do not only suffer from the punk syndrome; they have an array of less glorified mental diagnoses.

Pertti Kurikka, the singer, songwriter and guitarist in the band has cerebral palsy and autism. It sometimes causes him to become anxious or angry. He likes to play with the seams on jackets while making intriguing noises. And he has a speech impediment which one of their songs is about: “Pertti is mentally disabled. Pertti gets no coffee. Pertti has a speech defect and can’t throw a disco party.”

The band has been playing together since 2009 through a music project at a day centre in Helsinki where they received care. But their lives have changed a lot the past year. They released their first album and Jukka Kärkkäinen and J-P Passi released a documentary about them called The Punk Syndrome. It was a huge international success and has won many awards.  

What makes the film so riveting is its unapologetic approach to the life of mentally disabled people. Only a few seconds into the film and we’re exposed to Toni Välitalo’s peeing penis.  Smiling at the camera, PKND’s drummer who has Down’s syndrome, is at ease with the situation. It makes you drop both jaw and prejudice right from the start.

In another scene Pertti Kurikka is in the shower washing himself defiantly after he is ordered to shower before their concert. The nudity has causes some eyebrows to rise, but directors JP PAssi and Jukka Kärkkäinen stand by the scenes. “If we would have been filming not-disabled punk-rockers urinating and having a shower, we would have shown the situations in the way we did. By showing them as we would have shown anybody else we wanted to treat them equally and respect them - and of course to raise some questions.”

This idea follows throughout the documentary. It’s unflinching. We see the band members laugh, cry, fall over, drink alcohol, make jokes and talk about sex. It lets you follow their frustrations, deep moments of sorrow as well as joy as they fight for their right - sometimes in internal battles and sometimes against authority at the disability institutions- to decide over their own lives. But we also see a great band in the making; writing songs, having band practice, typing lyrics, performing and eventually going on tour.

“It is a different film about a similar subject,” says Paul Richards, who is a member of the UK punk band Heavy Load. They also have members with mental handicaps. “We were fortunate too in having a documentary as a way of getting our message out and the result has been that we've managed to reach a really large audience, and when the movie was screened we had loads of people expressing their support and frustrations.” He is the director of Stay Up Late which works for learning disabled people's rights to lead the lifestyle they want, to have social lives and go to concerts etc.

Because the fact that bands like PKND and Heavy Load can live the rock n’ roll dream is great, but far from the reality of what most severely mentally impaired people expect from their lives. Paul Richards says: “Sadly we're hearing that the pressures of funding cuts are even making the situation worse for people."

Tina Poyzer has been working to improve the quality of life for mentally disabled people for over 20 years. She has seen The Punk Syndrome about the Finnish rockers and thought it was very inspirational. “Back in 2001 a lot of people with learning disabilities didn’t have much of a social life and going out in the evening was more seen like something put in place to relieve their family. So an ‘excursion’ could simply be going out and watching your caretaker do their grocery shopping.”

By running a club night in London that is learning-disability-friendly, Tina Poyzer does her bit to facilitate a social life for mentally handicapped. That means physical considerations such as providing ramps and disabled toilets and not using flashing lights etc. But she says the attitude of staff at the club can be just as challenging when looking for a suitable venue. “The staff need to be able to deal with the fact that some people can get nervous or have a speech impediment.”

The Bubble club has been running since 2005 and Tina Poyzer is over the moon over its achievements. “We are usually about 200 people on the night. We’ve had five marriage proposals at the club, so far.”


But there are still many mentally disabled who don’t ever get out. Sometimes because they can’t afford it, don’t have anyone to help them go, or they are afraid to be exploited or harmed, or ridiculed. Tina Poyzer regretfully explains how she still sees appalling encounters in her line of work. “People still call them a spasm, laugh at them and even spit on them. It still happens.”

Nutty plans for North London Park by foraging football funds

Activists are drafting a plan to build the world's biggest park that you can eat, in North London. Mabley Green Park is about four hectare wide, which would beat the current edible park record holder in Seattle when the plantation of fruits, nuts and herbs would be finalised. 

The proposal has been put forward to the Hackney Council by campaigners of Mabley Green user group for over a decade. Its Chairman Damian Rafferty said at their meeting this week: “This is a watershed moment. We have received over 1200 signatures supporting this proposal which demonstrates that this isn't the view of only a couple of oddballs.“ 

The project is part of a bigger reconstruction project of the park, managed by David White, which will also see a playground and more football pitches built. He says £100 000 is held by Hackney Council to build the public orchard, foraged from the funds provided by the Football Association and Football Foundation to pay for more football pitches at the park. 

But there are worried voices over the sustainability of the park. Jon Sheaff, the landscape architect who has designed the proposed orchard says that it is important to start small, and train volunteers as the council doesn’t have money to pay for the maintenance of the garden. "I think it's a great idea for the space but I do have concerns because if we just plant some fruit trees and walk away and expect it to work, I think it's a recipe for disaster.”


Daniel Rafferty and the rest of Mabley Green user group are working together with London Orchards to figure out how to get the local community involved in the planting and pruning required. As the plan for the park’s construction is reaching its final approval stages with the council, he acknowledges the challenges ahead. "It's not like putting up a sign in Hampstead with all the yummy mummies. It's going to be hard work." 

London Comic Convention Video

I made this video with Marine Candel for TheFancarpet and their Hollyshop.


2014/05/08

Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Sabotage"

I had the pleasure of seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger in person at the press conference for "Sabotage", in London.

Published at TheFancarpet.com.