On 24 April 2013 the collapse of an unremarkable eight-story factory building in Rana Plaza, Bangladesh, killed 1,134 workers and injured in excess of 2,000. It was one of the most prominent events of that year, and the worst industrial disaster in the history of the garment industry.
The dead were almost all poorly paid textile workers, mostly women, who had been ordered to return to work in the concrete building the day after deep cracks were discovered scored into its walls, or face unemployment. Trampled and made destitute through centuries of institutional and structural injustices, what choice did they have?
Jeremy Seabrook’s The Song of the Shirt is an elegy to the garment workers whose lives we so readily swap for throwaway sweatshirts and cheap tops. Reading it, you get the sense of the roots of Bangladeshi culture and the events that have culminated in the creation of the modern Bangladesh; history, folklore and experience all have a voice in this condemning narrative. The author graphically paints the immiserate state of Dhaka’s stifling factories and then easily plucks us from temporality to be dropped 300 years into the past to witness the city’s brutal colonial policies.
The moral message is tightly stitched into the fabric of this book, which is at once a fascinating and deeply sobering portrayal of ‘the rags of humanity’.
Seabrook compares the lives of Bangladeshi workers with those of garment workers in Lancashire, England 200 years ago. The two are sides of the same coin, only where Lancashire’s labour settlements dispelled as the UK’s textile industry declined, leaving the workers to cling on to the ‘global market’ – an arrangement that robbed them of any cultural attachment, save ‘that which emanates from the market itself’ – Bangladesh stepped forward as one of the world’s major clothes exporters. But its labourers are under no illusion; they know that their employ is only temporary and that, when it ends, their rural homecoming would be ‘to landless exile, a situation of a different order from their ready assimilation into the rural economy of two centuries ago’. There will be no shortage of poor people to take their place.
Bangladesh’s garment industry
The garment industry employs in the region of four million people in Bangladesh today. Through the parallels drawn across time and geography, linking Asia’s impoverished people with those of Europe, Seabrook makes insightful analyses of migration, industrialisation and culture.
Seabrook is intimately familiar with this part of the world and leads his narrative seamlessly through green fields and villages, over water into cities and slums.
He interviews scholars and bright-eyed youths, the poverty stricken and those who are fighting for change. Then out from the shadows he pulls factory accident after factory accident until he’s woven a devastating tapestry that spans centuries – one that was spun in relative privacy without the constant presence of our ‘insomniac global media’. Seabrook is entirely conscious of the history that went into producing today’s Bangladesh and tells with poetic finesse the treacherous past that props up the world’s capitalism.
‘Urbanization without industry makes of Barisal only a kind of holding centre, a refugee camp, from where people will expect to move on to the factories of Dhaka or Chittagong,’ writes Seabrook. ‘It is far from how the new inhabitants of the raw industrial towns of Britain saw their migration into the urban centres … there are conspicuous similarities in the crush of humanity besieging Dhaka, and the one-way migration of the people of Britain into the miserable tenements and back-to-back houses of the industrial revolution.’
Rana Plaza is a disaster that stands out in personal memory as some outraged, moral corner of our being recognises the injustices that, over centuries, have led to so much destruction – but the global media has moved on. Donations were made to the families of those who died and several dozen factories have been closed down, but the Rana Plaza reforms have not touched two-fifths of the country’s factories.
Less than a year passed before another factory collapsed, killing 18 people. The garment workers of Bangladesh continue to earn some of the lowest wages in the world.
This review was originally published in Global: the international briefing magazine. The Song of the Shirt: The High Price of Cheap Garments, from Blackburn to Bangladesh was published by C Hurst & Co in 2015, ISBN 978-1849045223. I received this book in exchange for a fair book review.