Stitching a shroud and a shirt

vidya ram | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on January 02, 2015

Dust to dust: The wretched conditions of the garment workers in Bangladesh came to global attention with the Rana Plaza building collapse.   -  Reuters

The Song of the Shirt<br>Cheap Clothes Across Continents and Centuries<br>Jeremy Seabrook<br>Navayana<br>Non-fiction<br>₹495<br>

A historic tale backed by human stories that tells of the systemic exploitation of Bangladeshi garment workers over the decades

The horrific conditions in which Bangladesh’s garment workers fulfil the relentless demands of the global fashion industry became the focal point of global outrage last year when Rana Plaza, an eight-storey building in Dhaka, collapsed killing 1,100 people. The tragedy highlighted not only the rock-bottom wages in the industry, and the fact that deaths and injuries were far from a rare occurrence, but also the pressures on the workers as it emerged that they continued to enter the building despite warnings of hazard, for fear of losing their jobs or docked wages. While the poor conditions of many employed in the long supply chain that forms the global fashion industry — whether in China, Sri Lanka or Cambodia — are well known, that conditions in Bangladesh often fell below that shoddy average became all too clear.

Jeremy Seabrook, a British journalist, researcher and the author of books about poverty in Britain and South Asia ( Pauperland: Poverty and the Poor in Britain, and People Without History: India’s Muslim Ghettos) has turned his attention to Bangladesh in The Song of the Shirt, a lyrical, historical study of the country’s relationship with the textile and garment industry over several centuries. Once a dynamic global centre of the weaving industry, serving the Mughal Empire, as well as the Dutch, British, French, Portuguese and Armenians, it lost its place to the cotton mills of northern England as the British empire tightened its stranglehold on the continent and forcibly shifted industry back to British shores. But the tide turned yet again, as the 20th century firmly placed Bangladesh back at the heart of the global garment industry and its demand for “limitless cheap garments”.

Seabrook’s narrative moves back and forth, and across the centuries, between Britain and Bangladesh, from the bustling backstreets of Dhaka to Manchester, which despite its vibrant revival continues to have an “emptiness that cannot easily be replaced”.

The book’s title comes from a poem of the same name, by 19th century British poet Thomas Hood about a British seamstress.

Oh, Men with Sisters dear!/Oh, Men, with Mothers and Wives!/It is not linen you’re wearing out, /But human creatures’ lives!/Stitch — stitch — stitch,/In poverty, hunger and dirt,/Sewing at once, with a double thread,/A shroud as well as a Shirt.

While Hood’s theme of the exploitation rife in 19th century England runs through Seabrook’s narrative, ‘song’ is an apt title for the book even beyond that: Seabrook’s rich, evocative prose often has a poetic and rhythmic feel to it as he draws you into the nightmarish world of garment workers.

Seabrook’s deep understanding of both cultures and histories (he has spent time among garment workers in different parts of Bangladesh since the early 1990s) enables him to point to startling parallels between the treatment meted out to Bangladeshi workers today and 19th century England’s textile and mining workers.

Seabrook estimates that around 10 per cent of parliamentarians are factory owners and more than half have an interest in the garment industry

Those looking for solutions may find Seabrook’s book deflating: he is (perhaps unfairly) dismissive of the many Bangladeshi unions, arguing that factors such as corruption and fragmentation inhibit their ability to effect change. Other books, however, such as Tansy Hoskins’ Stitched Up tell a rather different tale, pointing to the momentum that the unions have gained since Rana Plaza. But he does very effectively point to the enormous challenges: how can a country riddled with poverty and inhospitable geographic conditions challenge an industry that earns 70 per cent of its foreign exchange, particularly as the profits of many of those in power are inextricably linked to the industry’s selling point: its cheapness and pliability? Seabrook estimates that around 10 per cent of parliamentarians are factory owners and more than half have an interest in the garment industry. Such factors have meant that the focus has been on quelling dissent among workers (the creation of the infamous enforcement police in 2010) rather than tackling abuse (while garment workers in China are paid an average of $1.66 an hour, and 51 cents in India, Seabrook estimates, the rates in Bangladesh can be as low as 18 cents).

Seabrook’s anger is palpable — whether exploring how British imperialism robbed Bangladesh of its wealth, or the condescension with which garment workers are held by upper-class Bangladeshi society, or the attempt by European fashion houses to palm off responsibility for atrocities on distant supply chains.

The historical tale is backed by personal stories. Seabrook has spoken to workers in Dhaka and other parts of Bangladesh such as Barisal to create a vivid, and intensely human portrait of the industry and the pulls and pressures that draw people despite the most wretched conditions.

Perhaps Seabrook’s most important message is his firm rejection of the viewpoint — often hinted at in the Western media — that Bangladesh’s plight is inevitable, that the conditions the country has to put up with are part of its rite of passage to a world of “plenty and contentment”. There are deliberate and very human factors — both historic and current — that account for Bangladesh’s plight, Seabrook argues. And with all its pressures and without a concerted global effort for change, the wretched song of the shirt is likely to echo in Bangladesh for many years to come.

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Published on January 02, 2015
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