Let's not saint anyone just yet

First published by Indymedia UK on 22nd December 2004

On Sunday 14th November 2004 the UK music industry converged on a recording studio in north London to re-record the 1984 “Do they Know it’s Christmas”. A few days later Will Young appeared on the Radio1 Chris Moyles show as other celebs were simultaneously delivering and launching the single at Radio and TV stations around the country. During his Radio 1 interview Will Young pleaded with the listeners, “Get out there, buy the single, buy two copies. People have to be less selfish and start thinking about others”.

It is an interesting call to arms, especially when it comes from the music industry, a sector of the economy that is perhaps more liberally spattered than most with its fair share of the great and the good as well as the rich and the shameless.

Few can question the achievements of the original project or the commitment of its masterminds. The single sold more than 3.5 million copies in the UK and was number one in 12 other countries, becoming the biggest-ever selling UK single at the time and raising £8million . Equally whether you agree with its original champions or not, few question the motivations of Bob Geldof, Bono and Sting who have all become more than just pop stars, displaying an almost evangelical commitment to campaigning for what they see as a better world.

It is worth considering exactly who was taking part in Band Aid II [should read 20]. There are some among this generation’s stars who without question devote a lot of their time and money to campaigning, but equally there are many others whose careers, knowingly or not contradict their charitable sincerity.

On the Monday after the recording of Band Aid II, in the same newspapers as those reporting the recording extravaganza, Jamelia‘s £250,000 advertising deal with Reebok was being reported . What may have escaped a lot of peoples attention, particularly the popular press, is that according to certain industry watchers a “factory in Mexico which produced goods for Reebok, had low salaries, verbal and physical abuse on the factory floor, a requirement for workers to produce a medical certificate proving they were not pregnant before getting a job and contaminated food in the canteen” .

In addition to the Reebok deal, Jamelia and Rachel Stevens who was also singing for Africa have both been employed to advertise Pretty Polly lingerie in the not too distant past. Pretty Polly is one of many companies owned by the Sara Lee Corporation, which has been subject to much criticism over the years on issues ranging from a listeria outbreak in their tinned hotdogs which killed 21 people to operating maquila factories in Mexico, an area renowned for low pay, poor and often dangerous working conditions, and abuse of union rights. Incidentally it is worth remembering that after the listeria outbreak a Center For Disease Control report, detailed poor hygiene conditions in the factory, where faeces had been found in food preparation areas.

Now to be fair, both Jamelia and Rachel Stevens are not the only ones pocketing the corporate dollars, and after all they are both relatively new to the business so could perhaps being forgiven for naivety. The veteran celebrity Madonna however famously appeared in the adverts for Gap, which according to a document published by Gap themselves manufactured a lot of the clothes sold in its subsidiaries’ stores in Turkey, China, Guatemala, El Salvador and Indonesia. All countries considered by the Ethical Consumer to be oppressive regimes.

No Sweat, the UK campaign against sweatshops have also told us, “Sarah Lee have been shocking over the Grupo M debacle in Haiti. Refused to even visit the factory and investigate the claims of the workers. Despite a multi million $ loan from the IFC, including a clause on labor rights – Grupo M fired 300 workers for union activity, while Sarah Lee sat back”. And more positively, when asked about Gap they informed us “Gap now have a nice CSR report and are making serious efforts to clean up their image” . What was it Will Young said, oh yes, “People have to be less selfish and start thinking about others”. Will’s right, people do need to start thinking of others, like those who are starving in Africa, or those dying through corporate negligence or for that matter the hundreds of thousands suffering in sweatshops in South America and South-East Asia every day of the week.

Now to be fair, there maybe a little bah humbug in asking musicians that claim a social responsibility not too take money from some of the worst corporations causing and exacerbating global suffering, maybe it is better to simply ask the super-wealthy to put their money where their PR is.

Paul McCartney made a special visit to come in and play bass on the backing track. According to the Sunday Times Rich List, Paul McCartney is reputedly worth £760 million. Madonna graciously gave her time to record the introduction to the video for the single; the rich list puts Madge and Guy’s fortune at £215 million. Of course these inconsistencies are not monopolised by the veterans. Consider the younger talent, according to the accompanying documentary Robbie Williams hired the use of a studio for an entire day at his own great expense to lay down his vocals. The rich list puts Robbie’s personal wealth at £78 million.

Between only three of the stars involved their personal wealth totals in excess of £1 billion. Perhaps it is unfair to suggest that somebody worth 3⁄4 of a billion pounds could do more than donate a day of their time. But surely such high earning people, people who aren’t quite past their professional sell-by-dates yet, could donate a proportion of their huge personal wealth as well.

For arguments sake, let’s say these three socially conscientious stars donated half of their personal wealth. Would such philanthropy consign them to a life of toil like the rest of us poor boobs, can £380 million be enough to compensate for a lifetimes work in music, for that matter is £107.5 million enough for a young family to struggle by on and is it really too much to ask that a young man makes do with only £39 million after fifteen years hard graft, after all that would only work out to roughly £2.6 million per year? Which begs the question, could such a charitable donation visibly change a significant number of peoples lives? To go someway to answering that it is worth considering a comparison of fortunes. The Oxfam Christmas catalogue allows you to decide how your money is spent and gives a good idea of exactly what we’re talking about.

A brood of 10 chickens cost only £10, with the long term eggs and breeding potential making a real long term difference to a fair few people; or what about the Tree Seedling Nursery, an out of the box orchard come forest for only £460. But if we’re really going to make a dent in that £500 million donation we could always build a classroom and put a teacher and materials in it for 10 years, which would still only come in at under £7,000 .

In being less selfish and thinking of others some people give a day of their time, some a few hours a week, others take a few years out of their lives, and let’s never forget those that even give their lives.

Sadly, there are some who give with one hand while taking away with the other. So let’s not saint anybody just yet.