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.
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).
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.
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.