Cheap Clothes Across Continents and Centuries
Labour in Bangladesh flows like its rivers—in excess of what is required. Often, both take a huge toll. Labour that costs $1.66 an hour in China and 52 cents in India can be had for a song in Bangladesh—18 cents. It is mostly women and children working in fragile, flammable buildings who bring in 70 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange. Bangladesh today does not clothe the nakedness of the world, but provides it with limitless cheap garments—through Primark, Walmart, Benetton, Gap.
In elegiac prose, Jeremy Seabrook dwells upon the disproportionate sacrifices demanded by the manufacture of such throwaway items as baseball caps. He shows us how Bengal and Lancashire offer mirror images of impoverishment and affluence. In the eighteenth century, the people of Bengal were dispossessed of ancient skills and the workers of Lancashire forced into labour settlements. In a ghostly replay of traffic in the other direction, the decline of the British textile industry coincided with Bangladesh becoming one of the world’s major clothing exporters. With capital becoming more protean than ever, it wouldn’t be long before the global imperium readies to shift its sites of exploitation in its nomadic cultivation of profit.
Jeremy Seabrook is a researcher, journalist and writer. His recent books include Pauperland: Poverty and the Poor in Britain and People Without History: India’s Muslim Ghettos (Navayana).
‘Global passionate, informative: Seabrook’s The Song of the Shirt is an elegiac and enraging account of the garment industry, placing humanity firmly at its heart’—judges citation, for the 2016 Bread & Roses Award for Radical Publishing
The Hindu calls The Song of the Shirt, ‘a bleak anthem to a country on the throes of an inhuman globalisation process, its poor subjected to never-ending penitential labour.’
Rajni George interviews Jeremy Seabrook about his work in the Open magazine.
Tehelka magazine reviews the book here.
Filmmaker Surabhi Sharma notes the connection that The Song of the Shirt makes between colonial practices and
contemporary global economic policies in Outlook.
Seabrook, The Indian Express says, pays an ‘extraordinary tribute to the workers who pile into Dhaka and other centres of the garment industry from all corners of the country… in poignantly suggestive prose.’
‘The sweat and blood of Bangladeshi garment workers is woven into the very fabric of our daily lives. Seabrook, as he always has, delivers a brilliantly written jeremiad with an urgent moral message’—Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums
‘At once illuminating, deeply absorbing, and sobering, this is an ode to the “rags of humanity”—the labourers, young and old—who sometimes perish in order to create our fashionably casual clothes. It’s written by one who’s long been intimate with this part of the world and its anonymous dwellers, and who has responded always with passion and eloquence’ —Amit Chaudhuri, author of Calcutta: Two Years in the City