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.