What is the real ‘cost’ extracted by cheap products, especially garments? Is a product a product of simple ‘work’ or one of structural exploitation of entire populations? A report entitled Fabric of Slavery published by the India Committee of the Netherlands details the appalling conditions of workers in Tamil Nadu’s mushrooming cotton-yarn mills.
Conditions akin to slavery, including child-labour, prevail in 90% of them—the withholding of wages, the lack of consent of workers, severe restrictions on movement, enforced isolation, poor working conditions and vulnerability to various kinds of abuse be it physical, psychological or sexual. These are circumstances of ‘forced labour’ as defined by the ILO Forced Labour Convention of 1930 which India had ratified, notwithstanding the violation of labour laws specific to the country and certain fundamental rights.
A standard working week is 60 hours or more, minimum or any wage at all is not a guarantee, workers can be woken at any time of the night to fulfil ‘orders’. Jeremy Seabrook‘s description of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in The Song of the Shirt: Cheap Clothes across Continents and Centuries—“a story of such appalling contempt for human life that it must rank among the most callous in the brutal history of industrialism” eerily applies to the experiences of the ‘inmates’ of these factories as well. These are conditions that remain undocumented despite their intimate association with an everyday human necessity—clothing.
For as Seabrook writes,
The appeal of cheap garments in contemporary Western markets is often advanced as a conclusive argument for the industry in Bangladesh (and elsewhere): the consumers have spoken, and their voices are louder in the global market than that of people who have produced the garments.
Buy The Song of the Shirt here.