Labour Research June 2016


The song of the shirt

The high price of cheap garments, from Blackburn to Bangladesh

Jeremy Seabrook, C Hurst & Co, 288 pages, £14.95

In April 2013, Rana Plaza, an unremarkable eight-story commercial block in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, collapsed killing 1,129 people and injuring over 2,000. 

Most of them were low-paid textile workers who had been ordered to return to their cramped workshops the day after ominous cracks were discovered in the building’s concrete structure.

Rana Plaza’s destruction revealed a stark tragedy in the making: of women and children toiling in fragile, flammable buildings who provide the world with limitless cheap garments through shops such as Primark, Benetton and Gap — and bring in 70% of Bangladesh’s foreign exchange while earning a pittance themselves.

Seabrook traces the intertwined histories of workers in what is now Bangladesh and Lancashire. Two hundred years ago, the former were dispossessed of age-old skills while their counterparts in Lancashire were forced into labour settlements. 

In a ghostly replay of traffic in the other direction, the decline of Britain’s textile industry coincided with Bangladesh becoming one of the world’s major clothing exporters. The two examples offer mirror images of impoverishment and affluence.

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