Workers at a garment factory in Bangladesh before starting another day of work.
Credit: Flickr / Ashiful Haque
Workers at a garment factory in Bangladesh before starting another day of work. Credit: Flickr / Ashiful Haque

Workers’ yarns

FROM PRINT QUARTERLY: Jeremy Seabrook’s 'Song of the Shirt' paints a partial picture of migrant workers.

Vijay Prashad is a historian, author and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, an inter-movement research organisation based in Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, New Delhi and São Paulo. He is also the Chief Editor of LeftWord Books and a fellow at the Independent Media Institute. As a journalist, he writes for Frontline, the Hindu, and Turkey’s BirGün. He has been associated with Himal Southasian since its inception.

Rana Plaza collapsed on 24 April 2013. The day before, Bangladeshi authorities had asked the owners to evacuate the eight-storey building, which housed, among other establishments such as a bank and shops, factories that employed around 3000 workers. Rana Plaza, located in the Dhaka suburb of Savar, produced garments for the commodity chain that stretches from the cotton fields of Southasia through Bangladesh's machines and workers to the retail houses in the Atlantic world. Garments for famous brands were stitched here, as are clothes that hang on the shelves of Wal-Mart. Over 1100 workers died under the building. They did not stand a chance.

Following the devastation, photographer and activist Taslima Akhter took her camera to Rana Plaza. She photographed what she saw as an act of remembrance. One of her pictures became emblematic of the violence – a man embraces a woman, both dead, covered by dust and debris. It was the tenderness in the midst of such brutality that made the picture so iconic. Akhter is part of the Biplobi Nari Sanghati and the Gana Sanghati Andolan – one a women's organisation and the other a group involved in left-wing activism. These are the contours of Akhter's politics and it helped define her powerful photographs. Akhter also teaches at Pathshala, a photography school in Dhaka founded by Shahidul Alam. When the dust began to settle on Rana Plaza, Pathshala's team, including Akhter, began to document the lives of the dead and the missing. Their work became Chobbish April: Hazaar Praner Chitkar (24th April: outcries of a thousand souls).

This review was published in our print quarterly 'The Bangladesh Paradox'. See the rest of the issue <a href="" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">here</a>.
This review was published in our print quarterly 'The Bangladesh Paradox'. See the rest of the issue here.

The book – nearly 500 pages long – is a pastiche of the tragedy. There are pages that collect the posters put up by frantic family members in search of their loved ones; there are passport photographs of the dead with a brief sense of their lives; there are pictures of the rescue operations and pictures of protests (Disclaimer: I have an essay in the volume). The book opens with the story of 35-year-old Baby Akhter, a swing operator in EtherTex Garment, who began work at Rana Plaza only 16 days before her death. Akhter came to Dhaka from Rangpur, where her father was a landless peasant. She came here seeking a better life for her children. Akhter's only luxury was paan and a hand-held fan, said her husband Delowar. "She was ready to stand with me and fight any battle," he recalled. Her picture exudes defiance and shows her kindness – a smile hidden in her face. Chobbish April's feat is to bring alive the worlds of the workers, and to reveal the political cruelty of Bangladesh's role in the garment trade. This is not merely a book of sorrow. It is also a book containing a loud scream.

Jeremy Seabrook's The Song of the Shirt: Cheap Clothes Across Continents and Centuries is driven by the same kinds of concerns as that of Chobbish April. Both books detail the social history of the factory worker – most likely a woman (80 percent) who has migrated away from conditions of landlessness and flood to the factories, and is most likely fully aware of the provisional status of her employment. They are "disposable, rags of humanity," writes Seabrook. The workers bring with them the desolation of the countryside ravaged by industrial agriculture – overworked soil and poisoned watercourses as well as a law of value that makes the small farmer redundant before the might of capitalist farms. In the city of Barisal, Seabrook spots the migrants leaving the place to find work. Among them are young women who are:

travelling to the capital with their cardboard suitcases and sweet submissiveness, taken by unknown aunties who appear from no one knows where, promising lives of prosperity and ease. They are quickly instructed in stitching. They bend meekly over Japanese Juki or Brother [sewing] machines, votaries of the religion of industry. Their necks present an image of tender vulnerability in their yielding and apparently, freely chosen servitude. There are many girls, too, with their two or three years of schooling, the scratched signature with tongue between their teeth, thirteen- and fourteen-years old, child brides of industry, waiting to be claimed by raw factories on sites that were, until yesterday, agricultural land.

The language here rankles. The young women are 'submissive'. They have little control over their lives, and therefore, must be saved. A phrase such as "child brides of industry" is bathed in stereotypes of child marriage in Bangladesh. If Seabrook had allowed these young girls to speak, he might have had a more nuanced sense of their journey to the factory. These girls are driven by poverty surely, but also by other ambitions. Such dreams are only indicated in the book by the hopes of parents to educate their children into another life.

The migrants come to the factories out of desperation and hope. If it were merely desperation that drives them, then the work of political organisation would not be so difficult. The young men and women who come to these factories have other aspirations – desire for the commodities that surround them or for a piece of land that they can buy with their savings. This is what Baby Akhter told her husband, and it is also what Lima, a 15-year-old Seabrook meets in a small factory unit in Mirpur, tells him. "Her hopes are poignant," writes Seabrook with a touch of condescension, "the likelihood of the fulfilment of her dreams remote." The mathematics is against Lima's hopes, but the hopes themselves are perhaps what keep her going.

Mostara, a 25-year-old woman Seabrook met in Dhaka in the 1990s, and who was chaperoning a group of recently-arrived young girls, tells him that they have no time for dreams: "What dreams? Their only dream is to go to their house, cook, eat and sleep. That is the dream of young women in Dhaka – they dream that their working day will at last end." Factory workers oscillate between Lima's anticipations and Mostara's frustration with the language of dreams. A zombie-like existence is belied by the care taken by the women rising early to do their hair before work, or by their brave decision to organise themselves for the betterment of their lives. To ignore the lure of aspiration is to lose an important thread in the consciousness of the migrant industrial workers.

To miss their own awareness of their political weakness is to fail these workers. "How can the poor fight for justice," asks Zilbhanu, a woman Seabrook meets in Kaunia, a poor settlement in Barisal, "when we have no knowledge and no resources?" It is the question that animates Chobbish April and the work of the many fledgling workers' organisations in Bangladesh. From Seabrook's book, it would not be clear that these workers have conducted and been part of brave militant actions over the past several years. In May 2006, the garment workers of Bangladesh revolted against their conditions. The wildcat strike shut down 4000 factories. Repression by the state produced the conditions for a riot. Other workers, including schoolteachers, went on a strike as well. Reservoirs of discontent spilled over. As recently as June 2012, thousands of workers in the Ashulia Industrial Zone, outside Dhaka, protested for higher wages and better working conditions. For days on end, these workers closed down 300 factories, blocking the Dhaka-Tangali highway at Narasinghapur.

Attempts to fight for better work conditions and wages, as well as to form unions are met with harsh repression from management. In the 2015 Human Rights Watch report, '"Whoever Raises their Head Suffers the Most" – Workers' Rights in Bangladesh's Garment Factories', one worker recounted her harrowing experience in early 2014. Despite being pregnant, this union organiser was "beaten with metal curtain rods" by 'local goons'. Those who try to form unions are fired. The violence and the loss of work, says one fired union organiser, leads people to say, "See you were trying to form a union in the factory and now you're out, so why should we want to form a union?" This sentiment does not suggest that the workers see unions as worthless, only that they understand their position of extreme vulnerability.

One of Seabrook's interlocutors is the trade unionist Amit Sarkar, who tells him, "Lack of workers' power is our biggest constraint." Seabrook acknowledges that there are at least 50 trade unions in operation in and around Dhaka, but then dismisses them. "They fail to command widespread support," he notes. If he had gone to the University of Dhaka, Seabrook would have met Zia Rahman, whose work on the limitations of trade unionism in Bangladesh is essential reading.

Rahman is interested both in the failure of the unions to develop amongst garment workers and the outbreak of the May 2006 mass uprising amongst those very workers. The socialist policies of the Awami League that took power in newly independent Bangladesh could not create a sufficient dynamic to sustain it. In less than four years, the Army overthrew the Awami League government in 1975. Bangladesh's tradition of socialism is weak, and is now further weakened by its reliance upon the global commodity chain for its foreign exchange. The state is utterly opposed to the workers – there is no institution in the state structure that promotes a pro-worker agenda. Given this, unions have always been on the back foot. The jute industry, historically the largest sector, collapsed under the weight of slack demand and poor management. The garment industry, now the largest sector, grew entirely in security zones with little hope of unionisation. These factories are a war-zone. It is unkind to suggest that the unions have not done enough. It is reasonable to suggest alternative strategies. But none are on offer from Seabrook.

Rahman's main point of contention is that the unions are yoked to political parties, which are averse to workers taking up leadership posts and are generally biased toward whatever policy the ruling political dispensation adopts. Independent unions are few, and many of these operate more as NGOs (often reliant upon foreign funds) than as militant unions. Fragmentation of society through enforced migration and deterioration of living standards as well as the cynical promotion of religion as social glue opens the door for Islamist groups to flourish. The rapid growth of Hefazat-e-Islam, whose goal to ban women from work and portray them as the problem of social ills, is suspicious. Many in Bangladesh consider this group to be a cut-out for the state – one more instrument to undermine the workers' agitations. None of this is in Seabrook's book, whose prose beautifully skims the surface of the myriad challenges that face the people of Bangladesh.

Seabrook turns to historian Dipesh Chakrabarty to explain why the jute workers of Bengal failed to forge a powerful union. Chakrabarty's explanation is in the domain of culture. Workers come to the factories with their own rural sensibility – steeped, it seems, in communal and caste loyalties. For Chakrabarty, the bhadralok trade unionists could not compete with these older identities to fashion a new proletarian worldview amongst the workers. Lingering, ancient culture defeated the trade unionists, who could not create the basis for a modern outlook. In effect, Chakrabarty blames the trade unionists who – like the workers – came from a culture that had not adopted the prejudices of liberalism. Disdain for the workers meant, as Chakrabarty wrote, "Bengali intelligentsia seldom, if ever, produced social investigators like Henry Mayhew."

Chakrabarty and Seabrook (who quotes this line approvingly) fail to see other traditions of denunciation against the colonial factory system. Colonial conditions did not easily produce liberalism. Rather, the spectrum of political ideology spanned from nationalism to communism, going outward to revolutionary organisations such as the Anushilan Samiti and the Jugantar group. Anti-colonial nationalism was the "liberalism of the colonies". It is here that one can understand Subhas Chandra Bose's work amongst the working-class of Bengal in the 1920s (his limitations have been explored in Dilip Simeon's The Politics of Labour Under Late Colonialism, 1995). It is also here that one can perhaps identify the socialism of Bangladesh's Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The anti-colonial nationalists might not have produced a Henry Mayhew, but the communists certainly did so. Their work is totally ignored by Chakrabarty and Seabrook. Harsh colonial repression made it difficult for activists and journalists such as Muzaffar Ahmad, Abani Lahiri and Abul Hashim to write the Bengali variant of Mayhew's London Labour and London Poor. Instead, they wrote pamphlets (which were hastily proscribed) and documents to be hand delivered to each other, all of which were developed to aid their struggles. Communist newspapers, such as Nabajug, had to be distributed with stealth. Writers and poets such as Navakrishna Ghosh and Nazrul Islam produced a body of work on the working class that helped draw in popular sympathy. It was the best that could be done in the circumstances.

In 1943, during the worst point of the Bengal Famine, the communist artist Chittaprosad traveled in Midnapore, drawing the grim reality before him. The Communist Party of India published his drawings and notes as Hungry Bengal (1943), a book banned by the colonial government, which burned all 5000 copies; only one copy survived. Writers, artists, activists and journalists of the kind of Ela Sen, Zainul Abedin, Renu Chakravartty, Chittaprosad, Kalpana Dutt, P C Joshi and Sunil Janah were the Mayhews of the famine.

Seabrook's limitation is that he disdains the left, which he describes as archaic, austere and bureaucratic. This is not the Bangladeshi left, which he ignores entirely (including the work of Badruddin Umar), but the Indian left. He crosses the border to bring Kolkata into his story as the inheritor of Dhaka's precolonial glory. His judgment on the left is clichéd, hardly worth the scant observations he makes of West Bengal. There is a curious moment when he explains the context in which the Left Front in India came to power in 1977:

It is a uniquely Calcuttan twist that the Communist Party – largely of idealistic bhadralok origin – should come to power only in the last quarter of the twentieth century, at a time when the old industrial base of Calcutta was itself in the process of dissolution, which the workers' party furthered with great bombast and empty rhetoric. The party of the poor and oppressed achieved power only at the moment when that power – in the shape of industrial organization – was wasting away.

There is no irony here. The Left Front came to power after decades of long and difficult struggle against the colonial state and the new Indian ruling class. Seabrook mentions the Bengal Famine of 1943, but does not indicate the role played by the Communists in bringing it to light. The peasant struggles from the 1946-47 Tebhaga Movement outwards to the largely urban Food Movement, started in 1959, which created a massive base of working-class and peasant support for the left in its 1977 triumph. That the Left Front erred in the implementation of its industrial policy in the 1980s and 1990s does not interest Seabrook, as it should. Criticism of the left is important and welcome. Seabrook merely slanders a tradition that he knows little about.

At one crucial point, Seabrook writes that the concept of 'economic violence' is given short shrift in our times. What is equally ignored is the fact of political violence. In 2012, union organiser Aminul Islam was tortured and murdered; his body was found 100 kilometres outside Dhaka. This crime has gone unpunished. It is merely one amongst many. In 2014, union leader Mira Boashak was beaten in broad daylight outside the Global Garments factory. Because the attack was caught on tape, the factory's owners, the Azim Group, paid compensation. There is now an industrial police in Bangladesh to ensure that the workers do not strike or do any political activity. Across the border, in West Bengal, sustained violence against cadre and sympathisers of the left has come from a combination of the bosses and their political benefactors, the Trinamool Congress. Political fear stalks the land.

Seabrook writes beautifully. His book is lyrical. While there is no overt theory, it is underpinned by a basic theoretical premise. It suggests that the problem of Bangladesh is rooted in the failure of its elite to produce liberalism. If the elite were not so egotistic, they might turn out to be like the British. When Seabrook recounts the vulgar aftermath of the 1913 Senghenydd disaster, one of the worst mining accidents that took place in South Wales, UK, he says, "Such public callousness would be unthinkable today in Britain." Such callousness he sees writ large in Bangladesh. The British government "could not afford to ignore the social consequences of the new human being – the industrial worker – which their system had created." The Bangladeshi government, on the other hand, "has shown a greater readiness to suppress workers' organizations and movements rather than to accommodate them." Attitudes of the elite are to blame here. Seabrook suggests, strikingly, "If workers were accorded dignity and respect, which have, so far, been withheld, all the rest will fall into place." There is little room here for the struggle of the working class to affirm its own position in society, neither is there room for the venalities of contemporary imperialism that create a global commodity chain on the nadir of which toils the Bangladeshi garment worker. All we are left with is a critique of culture.

Nothing like Seabrook's prejudice comes from Chobbish April, whose ambit is to document the resilience of the workers. It is in such texts – committed to the workers' hopes – that a future can be gleaned. What is outside the ambit of Chobbish April is a study of the workers' social organisation. Are trade unions the best form to capture the discontent of workers? Can trade unions work in the prison-camp like conditions of the new factories? Should trade unions tackle workers' grievances where they live?

Absent a robust politics at the point of production because of the global commodity chain and the social effects of neoliberalism, working-class communities have thrown their rebellious energy into fights at the point of consumption. No more workers housing has meant the growth of slums, where facilities for adequate survival are simply not available. This is the reason why the fights over water and power, sanitation and safety take up the leisure time of workers in Bangladesh as elsewhere. Protests against water shortages and rise in energy prices draw large numbers of people to the streets. The left has largely abjured the creation of organisational forms for these protests. In our current moment, workers' movements and power might no longer grow from the factory to the community; it might work the other way round. It might also allow the left to drive a politics of aspiration rather than politics of negation – a politics of what the people want rather than merely a politics of what is wrong with the world.

~Vijay Prashad is the Chief Editor of LeftWord Books and Contributing Editor with Himal Southasian. His most recent book is No Free Left: the Futures of Indian Communism (2015).

~ This review was published in our quarterly issue 'The Bangladesh Paradox'. Also part of our web-series on the issue.

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