Rana Plaza factory collapse two years ago today (top) and Cambodian garment factory workers lead a Clean Clothes Campaign
From the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York in 1911 to the collapse of the Rana Plaza Building in Dhaka in 2013, the global garment industry continues to be associated with the worst side of globalisation.
David Cichon writes:
“As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead,
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread”
– ‘Bread and Roses’ Oppenheim 1911
Today marks two years since the Rana Plaza factory collapse killed more than 1100 garment workers. And (just about) 104 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire killed 145 garment workers in New York.
Over a century later the ‘ancient cry for bread’ continues to echo throughout the, now global, garment industry. Wages and working conditions in industrial garment and apparel production chains continue to be appalling to this day.
The Oppenheim poem and the large scale ‘bread and roses’ strike the following year in Lawrence, Massachusetts, were inspired in part by the young labour leader Rose Schneider who said:
“What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”
The demands of the women workers in New York and Massachusetts are echoed by millions of workers in garment factories across the world to this day.
On Christmas day 2013 tens of thousands of workers – the large majority young women – took to the streets of Phnom Penh demanding, just like in Massachusetts in 1912, a decent, liveable wage and fair working conditions. The strikes in Cambodia, and in Lawrence, were broken up by state violence killing workers and imprisoning labour leaders.
Although working conditions and wages (and state repression) have changed little in over one hundred years, new technologies and transport systems (with a help of some ‘free’ trade agreements) have made the globalised garment industry more profitable than ever before.
The restructuring of the industry has also successfully removed the worker from the consumer. We have a stronger association with the mannequins wearing the clothes in the shop window, and the models who parade them for us in elaborate advertising campaigns, than we do with the person that made them.
The retailers and brands carefully create fictitious identities for their products, which help us forget that the garment industry remains one of the ugliest and most inhumane faces of contemporary capitalism.
The industry has also successfully removed the brands and retailers from the workers sewing the clothes.
All major retailers are sourcing from dozens of countries and within those from hundreds of suppliers, who in turn are sourcing from multiple different sub-contractors. In this complicated web of production, responsibility is lost – or perhaps purposefully misplaced.
The workers in New York found a solution to the issue over a century ago. The International Ladies Garment Worker Union (ILGWU) managed to negotiate legally binding “jobbers agreements” between subcontractors and lead manufacturers.
These agreements made the lead retailer responsible for all aspects of workers well-being at their sub-contractors – from wages and working hours to conditions and work safety.
The Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which was negotiated between brands, unions and employers in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, comes closest to a global ‘jobbers agreement’.
It creates a legally binding relationship between multinational brands and the factories making their clothes. It remains a long way away, however, from guaranteeing decent working conditions and wages to workers in the global garment industry.
And as the situation for garment workers in Bangladesh today remains largely unchanged, so does the situation for workers across the industry globally.
In Cambodia local and international unions continue to campaign for a higher wage. And we should do the same.
Should workers live just below or just above the poverty line? Or do they, like everyone else, deserve a wages that guarantees a decent living standard, the ability to feed ones children and like Rose Schneider said 103 years ago the “right to life, and the sun and music and art”.
Workers across the garment industry continue to contest the logic of capitalism. We should do the same– and not be fooled by the fictitious identities thrown our way. After 100 years it seems like it is finally time to find ways to make brands legally liable, and not just for the bread, but for the roses too:
“For our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!”
David Cichon is the winner of the TCD [Trinity College, Dublin] Postgraduate Research Showcase 2015 for work on the strategies and identities of global and local labour activists across the garment industry.
Richmond Street, Dublin this morning.
Thanks Fiona Coyle