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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser