By Sandra Niessen
Garment workers. Supply chain transparency. Living wage. Decent working conditions….
Just a few words is all it takes to conjure the image of the multi-billion dollar business of clothing production as well as attempts to address the egregious problems it has created.
I am increasingly having trouble with the notion of ‘garment workers’ — even when I am given access to a snapshot of “Who Made My Clothes“. These are people constructed in our image. Their existence has been collapsed with their work. Their being is bound up with our needs because they produce what we wear. Full stop.
And that is what I don’t like. I don’t want their lives bound to what I wear. I want their lives bound to what they wear and their own culture — not our obese fashion system.
This is important. As ‘garment workers’ that is all that they are. They have no other life. The focus on ‘garment workers’ is on their payment and working conditions. That is all. Our thoughts about them stop at: ‘At least our clothing system is providing them with an income’. It is a feel-good place to stall our minds. But imagine if their income dries up? And of course Covid-19 is yielding that spectre. What happens to them then? We hate to think…we see them leaving their jobs in droves, but the news doesn’t show where they are going, what they hope and what they can expect, what will happen to their families and their villages….
How did it come about that they produce for us in the first place? Does that employment offer them what they seek? Does that matter to us? Or is it only our lives, as consumers, that are supposed to be satisfying? Do we accept, without question, a world in which ‘everybody else’ is chained to producing for our boundless needs and feel satisfied if they earn a ‘living wage’ and have ‘decent’ working conditions?
No, I still do not know who made my clothes, even if I have her picture and a short bio.
I did know someone in North Sumatra who left her independent weaving occupation to go to the city to look for a labour job. She spent her last, borrowed cent to get herself and her family to the city. She was married to a farmer from the Sitio lineage, and had three young children. She lived in a desolate, isolated village and her true longing, she told me, was to make the most beautiful textiles in her own textile tradition. But the market had fallen out of her textile tradition. Everybody was wearing Western clothes. At first those clothes were a way to ‘get ahead’ in the world: find jobs, climb social and political ladders, fit in the church. Eventually, though, there was no more choice. All around her, everybody was poor. Nobody could afford the finest of their own clothing tradition anymore, and nobody felt comfortable dressing in the style of the ancestors. Mrs. Sitio wove faster and faster and earned less and less. She wove for a neighbouring tradition because there the market hadn’t yet collapsed. But it was eroding. Then Mrs. Sitio cracked, and she knew she had to find another source of income. I wonder if Mrs. Sitio is now making my clothes? Making your clothes? And what has happened to her with COVID-19? She won’t have been able to return to North Sumatra; the journey is too expensive. And would there be a roof and enough food for her in the village if and when she returned?
The last time I went to visit her, all I found was her weaving equipment lying in the corner of a shed that had flooded. It had begun to rot. The family regarded it as an heirloom passed down from generation to generation. But they did not know what to do with it now. None of them knew how to weave. They didn’t understand their own tradition. They admired Mrs. Sitio’s amazing skill — but they didn’t want to walk in her shoes. She was a culture hero, perpetuating their heritage — and she paid the price by living in poverty. They understood why she would want to strike out and look for a better life elsewhere.
Did she find it? What were her prospects? She was so brave — so desperate — to take that blind leap to another Indonesian island and city, all beyond her realm of experiences.
She would have looked for work as an ‘unskilled labourer’. She would have demoted and humbled herself. But she wasn’t unskilled. As a backstrap loom weaver, her skills were very highly honed. Most people do not know how difficult it is to weave a thing of beauty on a backstrap loom. It takes years to learn, years to become inducted into the special language of the craft, to develop the physical skills and design capacities. Moreover, she spoke at least two languages fluently and the smatterings of probably two more. She was active in the rural and ritual community, which she was destined to leave behind. She would say goodbye to a great portion of her spiritual/intellectual life. She would have to operate in her second or third language. She would not be able to cave in to feelings of alienation or depression because she had a family to care for. She was tough and she was humble. She was desperate. Rebellion was not an option. When she left her home and the clean air of her rural community for the anomy of the polluted city, she had reached the end of her options. Don’t tell me of the ‘agency’ of the poor.
Granting her the living wage would limit the insult added to the injury, but the injury would remain. I have sketched her choice at the personal level. There is also a cultural level. With her move, her society lost another weaver; their numbers are dwindling fast. Another craft is dying out, and with it another clothing tradition. Her children will not grow up in their ritual community and will lose touch with their language, religion, family and region of origin. Their culture will suffer for this, too. Grandparents will not be able to share with their grandchildren; stories, recipes, old ways, knowledge of nature and culture will not get passed down.
These are the unseen costs of our expanding clothing consumption. Yet our focus is narrowly on the ‘living wage’. We do not want to acknowledge the racism implicit in this focus.
How is Mrs. Sitio doing during the corona virus? We don’t hear much about Indonesian labourers in the garment industry during these difficult times, but tens of thousands must be facing harder than their usual hard times. In 2014, the ILO estimated that “garment manufacturing employs at least 40 million workers in Asia alone and more than 60 million workers worldwide, 80% of which are women. If we consider that many more people are employed to weave fabrics, spin yarns, dye, print, embellish, embroider, grow and pick cotton, shear sheep for wool, pack and ship products, sort and recycle disused textiles, then the industry likely employs hundreds of millions across the value chain.”
This morning I listened to a podcast with Ashoke Chatterjee, former director of India’s NID (National Institute of Design). It was 44 degrees in Ahmedabad, but he counted himself lucky. The unlucky ones were walking away from the now silent factories in Delhi, children in tow, towards an uncertain future. “Today their blistered feet, suffering and death on our roadways tell us exactly what they think of the uncaring cities to which they had journeyed in the hope of survival.”
Craft could have buoyed up the returning workers, Ashoke Chatterjee was saying, if craft production had been recognized as vital. But for too long this has not been the case.
“As we look back, we can see the neglect of rural India …. Artisans were being discounted because rural India was being discounted. With it came an acceptance of migration into urban slums as an indicator of ”‘progress” for the millions—artisans among them….”
When the pandemic struck, the importance of wellbeing was suddenly placed front and centre — and the contrast to dominant ideologies was confrontational: “It is becoming clear that our real problem is the dominating pattern of “development” that has taken over our country—a pattern that mistakes statistics and infrastructure as “development” rather than the wellbeing of the vast majority of our people or of the environment that shelters them….” said Mr. Chatterjee.
Significantly, Mr. Chatterjee also pointed out that the word ‘craft’ did not occur in Indian languages. In Mrs. Sitio’s case, her ‘craft’ was production of what had formerly been indigenous clothing. The word ‘craft’ situates indigenous production relative to industrial clothing production as inferior and less consequential. Of course the word ‘craft’ is not found in cultures where there has been no industrial production!
The garment industry is implicated here. The more it expands, the more indigenous clothing production and use declines. It undercuts local ‘clothing production-demoted-to-craft’ in numerous ways: speed of production, price, advertising, the caché of modernity, and finally the dumping of Western cast-offs on indigenous markets. In North Sumatra, ‘craft’ producers now only make ‘token’ clothing items for ritual, and their economic contribution can be negated. People like ibu Sitio flock to the city in search of a better income and their cultures take a further hit.
Green activists strategize how to make the clothing industry sustainable. They focus on sustainable materials, efficient processes, living wage, and decent working conditions. Undeniably important, all of it. But this limited focus fails to address the systemic, historical circumstances that finally push the likes of Mrs. Sitio to leave their homes and join the ‘de-skilled’ labourers in the city. And the resultant decline in cultural vibrancy and diversity.
That is why I am disenchanted with the epithet, ‘garment workers’. If, instead of being satellites to ‘our’ Western industrial complex, they were recognized as human beings with distinct cultures and clothing traditions of their own, it would have mattered in the first place that they were being stripped of both their humanity and their culture to become ‘garment workers’. And it would have mattered that they have no place to turn when a pandemic strikes. Their fate would figure in discussions of sustainability when they are closed out of the factories and hit the road.
Ashoke Chatterjee put it well, “Progress is really about looking after each other and looking after the planet, which shelters us. If we understand progress as the well-being of human beings and of Mother Nature, if we are capable of understanding progress in those terms, then the importance of craft becomes obvious.”
There needs to be acknowledgement of the inverse relationship between indigenous dress and the global fashion industry. The Western fashion industry has promoted itself, with the aid of politics, education, religion and economics as ‘superior’ to what has been branded as inferior, backward and often even immoral: indigenous clothing systems. Only when the clothing systems of the world are all recognized as equally valid and treated with respect and as having the right to exist ‘on their own terms’, is it possible for the Western system to be sustainable; one that does not treat all Others as potential satellites for exploitation.
Maybe most other dress systems were once sustainable and in that sense vastly superior to the Western system of dress.
No bailouts, please, for the fashion industry, until respect for other clothing systems is inscribed in its operations. That will expose some rotten pillars holding up the old normal. And in Indonesia? May the government support systems that will allow Mrs. Sitio’s village to thrive. Then she can go home.
Bain, Mark, ‘Coronavirus threatens the livelihoods of garment workers around the world’. In Quartz. March 20, 2020.
Kumar, Krishna. The Village is still relevant. The Hindu, April 2020.