When I first saw the giant, I mean enormous, Gap billboard hovering over I-80 heading west into San Francisco, marring the landscape, distracting drivers, sporting the very seductive Waris Ahluwalia and the equally stunning Quentin Jones fawning over him, my first thought was “Wow, the sardars have been included in the ranks of what white people are willing to consider sexy!” My second thought was, “As if Caucasian taste in sexy is the global gold standard!” My third thought was, “Once again,the male character in the ad, as in most advertisements, stands there, apparently oblivious to the fact that a libidinous woman is cosseting him. He either couldn’t care less, or he’s scared stiff.”
When a week later I note this hullabaloo on Facebook about Gap’s supposedly magnanimous response to several incidents of racist responses to the ad, my thought was, “Not so fast.” I heard about an instance of a woman hysterically ranting about the beautiful poster, yelling something about “Do-Rag” and “Terrorist”. I read about the incident of Robert Gerhardt’s photo of the ad defaced with the phrases “Make Bombs” and “Stop Driving Taxis” passing through the Facebook and Twitter feeds of Arsalan Iftikhar reaching 40K+ followers. I saw a before and after photo of the ad with “Bin Laden” scrawled on Waris’s forehead replaced with a sticker that reads “Luv Urself”. None of this was particularly interesting. In fact, I expected racist reactions. Gap could have, and should have, and probably did, anticipate them. So why the flaccidity of their “incredible response”? They simply replaced one of the vandalized posters, and used the ad as their Twitter background photo. Big deal. It’s a flimsy riposte. I understand the Sikh diaspora is grateful for the sense of inclusion into mainstream corporate culture. Fair enough. Yet, if Gap was serious about racism, Gap ought to have been armed and ready with a mighty pen to bring shame on bigotry and put prejudice in it’s place. Even if Gap had issued a formal statement denouncing chauvinism I wouldn’t have been that impressed. I would have it considered it dutiful and expected. Huffington Post called their response “Incredible”. Seriously? Money Control called it “Amazing”. That’s amazing. The adulations Gap received from the press, even the “liberal” press, are unearned. The applause exhibited on Facebook is downright undeserved.
Forget about ads, marketing, comments, rants, vandalism, slurs, and swift public relations management. The other angle on this brouhaha is that, as far as real, actual, racist behavior goes, Gap scores a gold star. Gap goes straight for a killing. Literally. We all know Gap clothes are fairly “affordable” because they come from overseas sweatshops. We all know about the repeated tragedies in garment factories; most recently the world’s worst garment factory related disaster at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh this year. A proactive response to these recurrent calamities has been the development of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh drawn up by labor unions in conjunction with several key non-governmental organizations and retailers. The Accord is a legally binding agreement in which the United Nation’s International Labor Organization acts as an independent chair. The intent is to ensure safe workplaces for the next five years. (Um, what happens after five years? Back to business as usual?) Retail companies signing the Accord are obliged to contribute to a fund to make structural repairs and renovations in buildings and ensure independent inspections are completed by April 2014. There’s even a sliding scale for companies based on their yearly volume, the maximum fee being $500,000 per year. That’s a drop in the bucket for Gap. The Accord has been signed by 112 companies. Gap isn’t one of them. Wimps. They are featherweights when it comes to meaningful fairness.
Why hasn’t Gap signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh? They came up with a different agreement, along with Walmart and about 20 other North American companies, which they call the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. They couldn’t even get the terminology right. It’s Bangladeshi! It’s like saying Alliance for America Worker Safety. Parochial. In any case, the Alliance agreement is not as rigorous as the Accord. It doesn’t allow for unions. And it isn’t legally binding. It’s a voluntary initiative, drafted without consulting the workers or their unions, that can’t be enforced. According to the AFL-CIO, the Alliance is “weak and worthless”. So what’s the point? The intention is to look like they are on the side of a wealthy beautiful brown man by placing giant billboards all over the world with the slogan “Make Love” while in the background proceeding to “Make Danger” a normal working day experience for vast numbers of impoverished brown women. Get real Gap, mind the gap, and close the gap.
If you’re keen to do your small part in protecting the health and safety of the poor practically indentured women and girls, yes child labor, making the clothing with brand name tags sold in neighborhoods near you here are a couple of actions you can take.
1. Gap Deathtraps has step by step instructions for calling on Gap to sign the Accord.
2. International Labor Rights Forum has an online petition to Walmart and Gap demanding they sign the Accord.