design social justice

A jubilee for the sweatshop workers?

If you’ve been down a high street recently, you’ll be aware that the Queen’s diamond jubilee is being taken as an excuse for an orgy of conspicuous patriotic consumption. Evey shop has a range of royal merchandise, and there is apparently no household item so obscure that it can’t be decorated with union jacks. Some of it aims to be genuinely marking the occasion with something made to treasure and last. Much of it is ironic or just cheap tat.

I walked past a Poundland store this morning, and they have a whole 99p range of Jubilee souvenirs, and that reminded me of the artwork that appeared on the side of a Poundland this week:

Having turned up on monday night, this image was all over the papers and the internet yesterday. Most of the comment seemed to be speculation over whether or not it was Banksy or an imitator, rather than about the content of the image.

It’s a shame, because it makes a good point. Just like the Olympics, the wave of tacky Jubilee merchandise engulfing our high streets is from sweatshops in poorer countries. Our consumerist celebration is at their expense.

The word jubilee comes from the Hebrew yōbhēl, the ram’s horn that was blown to announce the year of Jubilee. According to the law of Moses, every fifty years would be a year of celebration. Slaves would go free. Land that had been sold would be returned to its original owner. Debts would be cancelled, and even the land itself would lie fallow for the year. It was a year for social justice and a fresh start, as well as a big national celebration. We need that kind of jubilee more than ever, and with no concern for anyone but ourselves, ours is a rather empty occasion by comparison.

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