A woman at work in the Who Made Your Pants workshop. Photo: WMYP
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Why don’t you care who made your clothes?

Two years after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, in which over a thousand people died, we still fail to appreciate the human cost of the clothes we wear.

It’s the fluff, explains Bessy, a factory worker in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South. “Little bits, as fly off fro’ the cotton, when they’re carding it, and fill the air till it looks all fine white dust. They say it winds round the lungs, and tightens them up. Anyhow, there’s many a one as works in a carding-room, that falls into a waste, coughing and spitting blood, because they’re just poisoned by the fluff.” 

It was not that long ago that death by byssinosis was a fairly common occupational hazard. Gaskell’s book was published in the 1850s – and it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that legislation addressed adequate ventilation in UK. Since then, of course, most textile work has been outsourced abroad – and along with it, occupational death.

“In our department, it’s full of jeans and black dust”, says one worker in the 2013 report Breathless For Blue Jeans: Health Hazards in China’s Denim Factories. “It is difficult to breathe.” The dust comes from sandblasting the denim to achieve a worn look. Although the practice has been banned, it continues behind locked doors, and workers continue to die from silicosis, a fatal lung disease.

Silicosis is not the only danger facing the modern factory worker. A 2014 study of garment workers in Bangladesh found “the majority” suffered from ill health, ranging from musculoskeletal disorders, through to hepatitis – this latter from a lack of clean drinking water. In Tansy Hoskin’s book Stitched Up, she reveals that in the Pearl River Delta in China some 40,000 fingers are severed each year in work-related accidents. And of course, this week sees the two-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh.

The day before the illegally extended building caved in on itself, large cracks had been identified by an inspection team, and the workers were evacuated. The following day gangs were sent to beat reluctant workers into the building with sticks. As an added inducement they were threatened with having their wages docked by a month if they did not comply. Faced with a stark choice between certain death by starvation, and potential death by crushing, the workers took their chances on the building. 1,133 people lost that gamble, with a further 2,500 injured, many disabled permanently. Two years later, they are still waiting for brands to pay them compensation.

Rana Plaza made headlines around the world because of its sheer scale. But the reality is that workers are dying every day in order to produce the clothes that you are wearing as you read this article. They are dying to produce the clothes that I am wearing as I write it. Hoskins points out that on the same day as the Rana Plaza collapse, 25 people died in a shoe factory in Lahore.   

There can be few people who want death and degradation to be a hidden cost of their clothing – but there is a sense of fatality to the debate. What can we do in the face of entrenched corporate power, we shrug. Hoskins has some sympathy with this viewpoint – in so far as she rejects the idea that consumers can shop Chinese workers to freedom through (often expensive) ethical fashion. “Why isn’t all fashion ethical?”, she asks. “Why isn’t the responsibility higher up the chain?”

“Ethical fashion could be seen as a middle class preserve and not addressing the big things,” admits Becky John, founder of Who Made Your Pants (WMYP), a co-operative staffed by female refugees that makes pants from reclaimed fabric. She agrees that changing the entire industry should be the long game. “But putting money right now into the pockets of women who haven’t got much, giving them jobs so they can support themselves, I think that’s important.”   

Few people would disagree with John on that point – but as Hoskins points out, after 25 years of production and promotion, ethical fashion brands still represent less than one per cent of the market. For her, “the focus has to be on how we deal with the 99 per cent that’s the problem”. At least in Bangladesh, since Rana Plaza, there are modest signs of improvement. Brands that have signed up to The Accord on Fire & Safety in Bangladesh, will for the first time be legally liable for the conditions in the factories from which they source. They are also committed to Bangladesh for five years – meaning they lose the bargaining chip threatening to leave if improving conditions start to dent profits too dramatically. “No-one would argue that it’s enough,” says Hoskins, “but in terms of fire and safety, it’s a game-changer”.

There is no denying that regulation is crucial to changing the lives of garment workers in Asia. As John shows me around her Southampton production line, edged in bright rolls of fabric and lace, she introduces me to two team members who have recently returned from maternity leave. It is regulation that has guaranteed these entitlements. But there is something more than that. As Setara and Yasmin cut Rosalind pants in a camouflage pattern, John tells me that productivity at WMYP is about a third of the industry standard.

It strikes me that this is the real difference at the heart of WMYP. It’s not the all-female refugee workforce, it’s not the maternity leave, the fire and safety regulations, the working hours – although of course these things are important. It’s the fact that they have returned the human being to the heart of production. Who Made Your Pants? And this is the role ethical fashion can play, despite making up such a tiny proportion of the industry: it keeps reminding us – and by extension, Hoskins’ problem 99 per cent – of the human labour we actually purchase when we buy commodities. When we purchase atomised products, it’s easy to shrug our shoulders and accept that we can never change the misery and degradation wrought by multinational corporations on millions of exploited workers far away. But when we see that we purchase labour, human labour, shrugging our shoulders and closing our eyes becomes that much harder. 

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage