The Tortures of the Textile Industry: the plight of Bangladesh

Workers in Bangladesh’s sprawling garment industry have taken to the streets demanding more than a proposed 77% wage increase amidst a backdrop of long hours and dangerous working conditions. Several high-profile accidents have occurred at textile manufactories in the country this year, none worse than May’s Savar building collapse which claimed the lives of some 1,129 people.

The collapse of the Savar building in Dhaka was the deadliest disaster in the history of the textile industry
The collapse of the Savar building in Dhaka was the deadliest disaster in the history of the textile industry

A massive 86% of Bangladeshi exports consist of textiles and related products, yet many of their workers remain impoverished and subject to appalling employment conditions. This is typical of the history of the industry.

Great Britain is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and with it a mechanised textile industry. Lancashire in particular saw swift advances in cotton-processing technology which allowed the mass production of cloth and yarn, thus severing reliance on labour-intensive cottage industries.

The pace of mechanisation in the textile industry in 18th century Britain had a devastating impact on the labour market. New technology meant fewer workers were required, leading to severe job competition amongst the working class. As such, mill owners could dictate fearsome terms of employment, including 68-hour weeks for barely subsistence pay.

Child labour, too, was common, and the working conditions of 18th and 19th century Lancastrian cotton mills have much in common with Bangladesh today. By the end of the 1800s, massive slums had sprung up around the mills, creating wretched living conditions for tired and malnourished workers.

One such place in Manchester, nicknamed ‘Angel Meadow’, was the inspiration for Friedrich Engels’ communist masterpiece,¬†The Condition of the Working Class in England¬†(1845).

Engels referred to Angel Meadow as "Hell upon Earth"
Engels referred to Angel Meadow as “Hell upon Earth”

Accidents, particularly fires, were commonplace and toxic fumes from the associated dyeing process had long-term health impacts on workers. These dangerous conditions were by no means restricted to Britain, as the textile industry expanded across the developing world.

For instance, on the 25th March 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York burnt to the ground, killing 146 garment workers, many recent immigrants. The factory managers had a practice of locking the exits to stairwells to prevent stealing and excessive break periods, thus condemning many of the workers to burn alive or die from smoke inhalation.

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire led to calls for changes to industrial working conditions in America
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire led to calls for changes to industrial working conditions in America

A mixture of democratisation, philanthropy, social campaigning and economic diversification finally eradicated the abusive conditions in Western factories during the 20th century.

As part of the economic diversification phase of development, the now labour-intensive textile industries were outsourced to the developing world, particularly South and East Asia. Bangladesh and many of its neighbours are now reaping the consequences of the Western world’s response to the evils of employment in the garment industry over 100 years ago.

Ironically, the economic stake held by many European and North American companies in Bangladeshi textile factories is weakening the case for strong legislation to improve safety conditions and increase wages for garment workers.

Short memories indeed; yet despite domestic and international activism the will of international business against a nascent and unstable democracy is likely to ensure that Bangladeshi workers continually risk their lives on a daily basis for little recompense.

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Unreasonable Miners Show Zuma Weakness with Proposed Strike Action

South African gold miners will begin a mass strike on Tuesday after rejecting government offers of a 6% wage increase. Demanding an extortionate 60% pay rise, members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) are set to cause huge disruption to one of South Africa’s most important industries.

Fears are already being raised that any attempts to coerce the miners back to work will result in a massacre similar to the one that occurred at the Marikana platinum mine last year, when 34 workers were shot dead by police.

The Marikana massacre starkly highlighted Zuma's mismanagement of the mining industry
The Marikana massacre starkly highlighted Zuma’s mismanagement of the mining industry

Wages for miners are low in South Africa, that is indisputable. A 6% wage increase would only be commensurate with current inflation rates, yet to demand 60% is madness. The living conditions of the miners compared to some of their fellow countrymen is surprisingly salubrious, removed as they are from the lowest levels of poverty by a regular wage and arranged living.

Furthermore, their work conditions are incomparable to those of their predecessors, who worked South Africa’s first massive gold mines from the end of the 19th century.

One of the first large miners’ strikes in South African history occurred in 1913, when white English-born miners were faced down by 70,000 Afrikaner troops sent by Jan Smuts. The Riotous Assemblies Act that passed following the strike was later used to severe affect against black protesters and strikers.

Clashes during the 1913 miners' strike
Clashes during the 1913 miners’ strike

For white miners in early 20th century South Africa, conditions were appalling. Working hours were inordinately long, hygiene at work hostels was abominable and wages were kept lower than the price of inflation.

Black workers, on the other hand, were subjected to virtual slavery. Forced to migrate to the big mining compounds from their homelands, they were kept segregated from society whilst barely being paid. By the time they returned to their ancestral farmsteads they would have spent what little wages they had earned, forcing them to return to the mines.

During the Second World War, when demand for minerals and energy resources grew, labour unions began to emerge amongst the black workforce. The Council of Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU) formed without government recognition, gaining 119 affiliated organisations and 150,000 members. Between 1940 and 1945, the number of hours lost in strikes increased from 6,000 to 90,000 annually.

Despite the government being forced to relax its restrictions on African workers set under the ‘separate development’ policy – due to their importance to the war effort – wages were deliberately stagnated against rising living costs. Rather than reason, Smuts again sent in the troops on any occasion when the strikes became too effective.

It is impossible to put a figure on the number of striking miners killed by the security forces in either the pre-WWII or Apartheid era South Africa, during which black miners were forcibly coerced into cramped work camps for little pay. Needless to say, the numbers far exceed those killed in incidents today. Additionally, the living conditions for the South African miners of the past were far worse than for those today.

Black mining compound at Kimberley
Black mining compound at Kimberley

Jacob Zuma has a lot to answer for. As head of the African National Congress (ANC), the supposed champions of the impoverished, he should have empathy for dissatisfied workers and have avoided a deterioration in relations with an important workforce which has led to such unreasonable demands.

However, he is too concerned with lining his own pockets through a convenient relationship with big business, including the powers-that-be in the mining industry. He wants to appease them by keeping worker wages low, at the same time hoping to encourage foreign investment.

But who is going to invest in an industry corruptly and unfairly managed, breeding a volatile and deluded workforce? Maybe Mr Zuma can answer that one.