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The traffic in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, doesn’t move much; jammed in a bumper to bumper line with horns blaring and a thick river of mud reclaiming the road on either side, there is time to look up at the buildings. While there’s shoddy construction everywhere in third world cities, what Dhaka has more than any other city I have seen is unfinished factory buildings, with steel rods sticking up in the air like hair. These buildings are already occupied with working factories, but the owners are clearly planning to add extra floors, to create more factory space.

When Australia’s garment retailers came to Dhaka and saw these buildings, did they ask whether or not they were safe? Did anyone verify the buildings themselves before placing orders in the factories?  On 24th April this year the Rana Plaza collapsed, killing more than 1,000 people.  The owner had illegally built additional floors to a building meant only for light commercial use; those new floors were leased to garment factories to satisfy the growing demands of Western retailers for cheap products. None of the retailers who placed big orders in Rana Plaza bothered to check whether the building was safe.

Tonnes of debris from the collapsed Rana Plaza has been pushed back from the road, leaving a shallow pit where the building once stood. But amongst the rubble is the story of what was once there: a vast mess of broken concrete and bent steel rods, with pieces of fabric snagged on the edges, fluttering like pennants in the breeze. Look more closely and you can see remnants of ordinary people’s working lives; broken shoes, lunch boxes, laminated instructions in Bengali to be tidy in your work. I pulled out dusty, hand-written attendance books listing first names, with a series of ticks which came to an end before April 24th, the day the building collapsed. Who knows if those people survived? The order sheets and buttons, zips and miniature squares of floral fabric for Benetton samples are scattered through the wreckage – traces of the quality control for everything except the people themselves.

In the hospital closest to Rana Plaza, lie some of the people who paid most dearly for this lack of care. I wonder how many Western retailers currently arguing over workers’ compensation have sent their representatives here? Perhaps they should pay a visit to the orthopaedic ward. More than a month after the disaster the ward is still full of amputees. Young, pretty women in delicate jewellery, still wearing their brightest clothes, sitting or lying on rudimentary beds, each with something terribly wrong or missing: amputated legs and arms. In many cases their limbs were cut off while they were trapped in the rubble. At least in hospital they will be fed; many do not want to go home to begin their new lives.

Later, sharing a salty curry in the tiny home of one garment worker, she asked me a question: if Australians found out how little she was paid, surely they would be happy to pay her and her sisters a little more for their clothes?

She earns $3 a day on a sewing machine.

I could not answer her.

Visit the Four Corners website to watch Sarah’s report “Fashion Victims”.

24 June 2013

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“Claymore is a social housing estate with a troubled history. It represents a concentration of highly disadvantaged people and experiences high levels of crime and anti-social behaviour.”

This bleak assessment of Claymore in south-western Sydney, home to 3,300 of the poorest people in the country, was conveyed in a consultant’s report last year to the NSW Government agency, Landcom.

At first sight this seems an excessively tough appraisal. Claymore sits in a green, undulating pocket of land hedged in by the M5 freeway and railway line, separating it from Campbelltown. The overwhelming impression is one of open space, big sky and wide, winding streets which all named after prominent Australian artists. After school the streets are full of children walking, running, scootering and biking home.

Venture further though and you’re struck by the number of abandoned, burnt-out houses and many more which have been boarded up to prevent vandals breaking in and burning them down. The shopping centre is shabby with many other shops shuttered. The youth centre sits in parkland riddled with broken glass and rubbish. It’s been closed for years despite this suburb having the biggest proportion of children in the nation. There are plans to re-open it next month.

“Claymore represents an exceptionally high concentration of disadvantage, low unemployment, low school retention rates and a high proportion of income from Centrelink benefits.”

So how and why did this public housing estate, built with $40 million and great enthusiasm just 35 years ago, descend into such squalor that demolition is considered to be the solution?

The main factors seem to be planning and people. The planners adopted a style of development from the USA called the Radburn model, clumping together multi-storey, attached houses, built back-to-front, in which tenants live facing each other, exacerbating social tensions. As for the people, it soon became clear it was far from ideal to have a suburb in which 96 per cent of residents were so poor that they needed to rent public housing.

As early as 1980, the ABC’s television current affairs program Nationwide reported significant problems at Claymore. One resident said, “You know when it comes to designing all these programs, no one’s put any thought into it. I mean what’s happening now is that they’re placing people in the Housing Commission areas and they’re all from low economic earning groups, so therefore they can’t afford much.”

Another complained, “In Claymore there’s one shop to service the area and to get to the shop you have to walk through the liquor department, which is disgusting. I was horrified the first time I went over there to see all these children having to sort through flagons of wine to buy mum the paper. That’s just utterly ridiculous in a place like that the first thing they provide is a liquor store. It’s just what we don’t need.”

Today, the drive-through bottle shop remains one of the few businesses doing well in Claymore.

By 1982 the NSW Labor member for Campbelltown Michael Knight said, “The Housing Commission dumped its tenants in nice homes in isolated communities that lacked services of the sort that every Australian expects.”

By the late 1980s the “nice” houses were already becoming rundown and being vandalised. Maintenance, or the lack of it, was a slow-burning local issue. One long-time resident told Four Corners that the suburb really started deteriorating during the 1990s.

Two years ago, the then Federal Housing Minister Tanya Plibersek came to Claymore with her NSW Labor Government counterpart, Frank Terenzini, for a television picture opportunity, announcing a grand plan to re-develop the suburb and a number of other public housing areas throughout the State. “‘We know a lot more about urban design today than when these estates were built,’ she declared.”

Then last year, the report commissioned by Landcom NSW, which is charged with opening up areas for low cost housing, was released.

“The project will involve demolition in stages of all except approximately 140 social housing dwellings and 28 privately owned dwellings, and subdivision to provide over 1,320 new dwelling lots, with approximately 70% of the eventual total being sold to private buyers at affordable prices.”

It seemed to be the classic win-win scenario. The State Government, with seed money from Canberra, could erase from the landscape one of the great planning disasters of the late 1970s. It could knock down Claymore, a ghetto entrenching disadvantage in generations of children, but it could fund its re-birth, at least in part, by selling off most of the estate for private housing. Claymore would re-emerge bigger and with a radically different social mix.

Like many grand plans making it happen has proved rather difficult and with just 99 houses bulldozed in the last year the Claymore Urban Renewal Project has stalled. The NSW Department of Finance sketched the problem for Four Corners:

“This project was announced by the previous government without Budget provision and is still under review. Any rebuilding or development of the site will deliver a mix of social, affordable and private housing. This is consistent with the Government’s policy of addressing the serious disadvantage and anti-social behaviour often associated with social housing by reducing its concentration. To date, work on the site has cost around $12 million. Work associated with stages 3 to 5 is estimated to cost $94 million. If the construction of additional housing is included the total cost will be around $232 million over the first seven years.”

Given the financial pressures which have already caused the NSW Government to sack public servants and announce politically sensitive cuts to private education, there doesn’t seem much prospect of the Claymore Urban Renewal Project progressing very quickly.

Claymore may have been built in just four years in the 1970s, but rebuilding in stages was always going to take much longer. Today, 2026 is the projected completion date, marked on the latest version of the re-development map.

When asked why there are so many burnt-out and boarded-up buildings in Claymore the Finance department advised: “It might not be economically viable to undertake repairs to houses that are badly damaged or have reached the end of their economic life, where there are long-term redevelopment plans. In such cases the houses may be boarded up or demolished, pending future works.”

In the meantime the people of Claymore must live with the uncertainty of what happens next. Frustration and anger are building in the community. Housing NSW holds regular meetings with a committee of residents but we’re told that some details provided at those meetings are regarded as so “confidential” that precinct representatives can’t even tell their neighbours.

When Four Corners tried to attend a recent meeting, we were asked to leave.

Written by Greg Wilesmith, Four Corners producer.

 

Watch the Four Corners report “Growing Up Poor” online here.

As one of the producers  ‘The Autism Enigma‘ I have been following the online discussion with interest. I’m pleased to see the variety of opinion about the film and subject itself. That was a prime reason for making this film – to stimulate discussion of the causes of a condition that is surrounded by opinion but not much clear evidence. Our aim was to introduce the work of Drs. Finegold, MacFabe and Allen-Vercoe to wider evaluation and discussion.

Thank-you for airing the film and bravely wading into the controversy. May I suggest that you include on your website in the “Autism Research, Reports and Statistics” section of the “Background Information” a recent article by Dr. MacFabe that clearly lays out the status of his team’s research, and his wish for a collaborative approach in future work on autism research (see below).

Short-chain fatty acid fermentation products of the gut microbiome: implications in autism spectrum disorders | Microbial Ecology in Health & Disease | Aug 2012
http://www.microbecolhealthdis.net/index.php/mehd/article/view/19260

Sincerely yours,
Christopher Sumpton
Toronto, Canada

Below is a letter recently sent to Four Corners by one of the younger members of our viewing audience. We’d like to share his thoughts and thought it would make a fitting opening post on the new 4 Corners blog:

Please allow me to thank you firstly for having such an informed, educational, eye opening, jaw dropping, heart touching show that just grabs you and has you hooked until the very end.
 
I am a 27 year old young man, who has run into a bit of health problems in the past year, my liver is on its last legs and i was given 18 months to live unless i was fortunate enough to get a transplant, i was told in december 2011 that i had maximum 18 months so i’m not able to work my usual job as an equine vet and have found myself watching (or should i say catching up on) alot of current affairs shows, hoping to broaden my thoughts and not think of what may happen to me. Until i come across your show i was begining to get very bored and not interested in such shows because of the lack of interesting story lines etc.
 
I even went out and purchased myself a new 34″ touch screen computer so i could jump onto your web-site and go back through your archives to watch previous shows, you have truely brightened up everyone of my days, not to mention totally changed my oppinions on certain subjects.
 
Friends and family are become very aware that im now bringing up subjects and debate topics over dinner or in general talk that i would never have before, plus they know that its best not to question me on Four Corners reliability because it will spark a 5 hour debate in which i will defend Four Corners until im blue in the face, and most times i’ve changed alot of others views after showing them an episode etc.
 
i know all this may just sound stupid but your show has truely and honestly made my life and whats left of it so much more then i could of ever thought possible
 
Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
 
Keep up the great work.
 
From
Stevie Beasley