Jeremy Seabrook puts together stitch by stitch, thread by thread, a stark picture of garment manufacturing in Bangladesh. The Rana Plaza disaster in Dhaka, in which 1,200 people died, made world headlines in 2013. Seabrook does not list the number of the dead. A number makes for an easy headline. It becomes a fleeting drama that makes it easy to archive away and not confront the disturbing reality of garment manufacturing in Bangladesh and the world over. The real issues—unnamed and unaccounted for—behind the numbers are etched out in detail by Seabrook’s compelling writing.
The sites of this hectic, unending production reveal an utter disregard for workers’ safety—their wages and homes reveal how abstract the term ‘labour’ is to local manufacturers, the international brands who are the buyers and the countries who are the consumers. The urban sprawls that are home to these factories and the rural desperation that sends an unending stream of workers to fill them are as important to the picture as any headline-grabbing tragedy. As Seabrook tracks individual lives of labourers, men and women like Mohammed Shahalom, Asgar, Nur Islam, Mukul, Lima come alive as flesh and blood people, not abstractions constituting ‘cheap labour’. As a seasoned journalist, Seabrook places his riveting narrative in historical context—making the link with the fires that abound in present-day Dhaka’s treacherous factories and the pauperisation of 18th century Dhaka weavers because of brutal colonial policies. The sallow-skinned ‘operatives’ working in cotton mills in 19th century Manchester are, through shared history and economy over 200 years, connected with the white poor entering Primark to pick up cheap garments produced in Dhaka today. Colonial violence is barely separated from the callous practices engendered by contemporary economic globalisation.
In Seabrook’s analysis, colonial violence is barely separated from the callous practices engendered by economic globalisation.
A searing anger pervades Seabrook’s text. Every industrial ‘accident’ in 19th century England and 21st century Bangladesh is brought out of the archives. Stitched into this narrative, one gets the larger picture of disdain and disregard for the lives of the working poor. You see the cold-blooded contours of a well-worked-out strategy to keep costs at a minimum. These are not random moments of cruelty by a colonial governor or a factory owner, not even the callousness of an international brand. This is an intricate system put into place where, as Seabrook writes, “the psyche of the people is made, unmade and remade in pursuit of an epic extractive project”.
During the making of my films on garment factories, the refrain of manufacturers was that our labour is the problem, neither as cheap as Bangladesh nor as productive as China. Seabrook’s The Song Of The Shirt is a chilling reminder of what that throwaway line means—that Indian labour laws are too stringent and do not allow makers to compete with China and Bangladesh. We are seeing a concerted effort to dismantle our labour laws. The tacky stitch between colonial practices and contemporary global economic policies is well and truly on the road to becoming seamless.
(Surabhi Sharma has made Above the Din of Sewing Machines and Labels from a Global City on the garment factories in Bangalore).