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Internship notes

Sewing the labels of discontent

Peter Farrell, 11 May 2010

Taking a stroll through the endless clothes racks of a Canadian mall is generally not a terribly edifying experience. For some, it’s a chance to pass a carefree day with friends, for others it’s an opportunity to update their wardrobe with the hottest brands and styles, and yet for others, it’s merely a necessary evil: a trip to buy new clothes for their children or for work.

Whatever it is that draws us to go clothes shopping, it is a fairly repetitive ritual based on labels. We scan the racks to find something appealing, first we check the brand label, then we check the size label, then the price label, and finally we might even check the washing instructions label.

These labels tell us a lot about how the article of clothing will affect our lives. The brand tells us what other people will think of us, the size tells us how it will hang from our body, and the washing instructions tell us if our day to day routine will now require regular visits to the dry cleaner. But of all the labels that we might find on these clothes, we are unlikely to find one that tells us how the garment has affected the lives of others.

Country of origin labeling may indicate the point of production for any particular pair of pants or t-shirt, but it says precious little about the true origins of a garment. This truth is hidden behind the vague understanding that labour rights are far from universal in much of the world. Indeed, country of origin alone is not enough to decipher the conditions under which our clothes are made. Ultimately, the truth is tucked away as if behind the curtain of a change room, down some dark corridor, where no one dares to venture.

Bangladesh is a country without such curtains to hide behind. It is among the world’s leading garment exporters, with many of their manufactured goods eventually arriving on Canadian and American shores. By taking just a quick look through the clothing bins of Dhaka’s New Market, you will find many of the brands that Canadians wear day to day. Even expensive labels like Nike or Tommy Hilfiger can be bought at a pittance of their North American shelf price.

The free market fantasy that the benefits of unfettered economic globalization will inevitably trickle down to vulnerable groups has failed spectacularly. In its current inception, globalization in many respects represents a race to the bottom for
the world’s poorest and most exploited. Intense global competition in the manufacturing sector pits workforce against workforce, pressing suppliers to reduce costs and putting constant downward pressure on wages and working conditions. This reality is ever-present in Bangladesh.

A recent study conducted by the Office of the Chief Inspector of Factories found a massive deficit between the law and actual practice in Bangladesh. The study found that one in seven factories do not pay their employees regularly and that one in three factories cannot be considered a good employer when measured against the nation’s basic labour laws.

As I write this, Ashulia (on the outskirts of Dhaka) has seen three days of clashes between police and garment workers which have left at least two dead and hundreds injured. The unrest began when knitting operator, Al-Amin, was killed while demonstrating against the summary dismissal of three of his colleagues. Tensions intensified over the weekend as tens of thousands of workers took to the streets in protest. Yesterday, as tires, cars, and factories were set ablaze, security was increased in other areas of the country for fear that these tensions could
lead to further unrest in the garment industry as a whole.

The clear anger and frustration that these tensions have generated seem to stem from the larger structural economic problems. These problems leave millions in Dhaka alone to toil in poverty and servitude, without access to basic labour
rights and protections. Generations of Canadians before ours were forced to endure similar bloody struggles to win the right to bargain collectively, in order to bring about the workplace standards which we now take for granted. The right to collective bargaining is fundamental to combating worker exploitation and increasing standards of living. However, the current global economic order impedes the realization of this right, rather than furthering it.

In this struggle, we as Canadians must ask ourselves who we stand with. Is it the biggest and most profitable multinationals like Walmart – a company that continues to squeeze suppliers despite ever-increasing profits through the current global economic crisis – or do we stand with the workers who want nothing more than the same fair wages and working conditions that we won through the toil of generations past ? We can no longer afford to justify our apathy and complacency by closing the curtain once more. In the end, willful ignorance will simply stitch us another label: Blind exploiter of the world’s most vulnerable.