When the Rana Plaza catastrophe happened and killed more than 1,300 garment workers in Dhaka last year, all that it merited was a sense of outrage, which never went beyond telling us how bad and horrible the whole thing was. There was hardly any attempt to go beyond the mundane obvious, to tell us why it happened and why it could happen again. For those seeking such basic answers, this volume does singular service. The admirable Jeremy Seabrook has come up with this necessarily grim volume detailing the sheer tragedy of those who create such wonderful and fashionable garments for the elite, but who themselves live a life bereft of even the most basic of comforts.
It will be churlish to blame just the Dhaka establishment for what happened there. So many other governments and power establishments have been equally, if not more, callous towards such industrial disasters. Therefore, it becomes necessary to develop a sense of historical understanding about what happened, and in this, Seabrook succeeds quite remarkably. In fact, he delves deep into history and as he follows the trajectory of the textile industry in East Bengal (and later Bangladesh), he is hardly surprised at the “epic circularity of the dance of capital — from Bengal to Lancashire and back again to Bangladesh.” Disaster is inbuilt into a situation where workers are considered eminently disposable, rags of humanity, used up like any other raw material in the cause of production for export.
Many of the workers who perished in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka worked for sub-contractors to British companies; a grim reminder of the fact that it has been more than 300 years since the fate of the weavers of Bengal first became tangled with that of the people of Britain. The manner in which this contrasting interface evolved is a fascinating tale seldom told with such an eye for detail as it is here.
As Seabrook says, when the East India Company discovered the superb and exquisite fabrics of Bengal, made originally for the Mughal court, so great was the demand for them that protectionist laws were passed in Britain, prohibiting the use of such materials. An Act passed in 1720 forbade the use of “any garment or apparel whatsoever, of any painted, printed or dyed calicoes, in or about any bed, chair, cushion, window curtain or any other sort of household stuff or furniture”. Despite this, the demand for Indian textiles, especially muslin — fragile as “morning dew”, sinuous as “flowing water”, light as “woven air” — was so great that the import of such goods could not be stopped.
At a subterranean level, however, something far more invidious was taking place. The captive Bengal weavers were being increasingly coerced by officials of the Company into producing so cheaply that they barely recovered their costs. This was only one of the many consequences of how the colonial power sought to convert the situation to its advantage.
The blatantly hypocritical colonial power and the avowed future champion of free trade destroyed the fabric industry in Bengal before Britain attained pre-eminence in the manufacture of textiles. There were various layers to the destruction: there was the process of deindustrialisation, which spawned punitive duties on Indian cloth early in the 19th century. Over time, supply of machine-made goods from Lancashire replaced the textiles of Bengal, not only in Britain, but in India itself. As a result, the spinners and weavers of Bengal fell into the greatest penury: “Dacca, centre of muslin production, became a deserted city: tigers and leopards roamed once-prosperous streets, and by the 1820s, the city of men had become a city of animals.” In the event, the working and living conditions of the weavers were most abysmal, where “hunched vultures surveyed tracts of land in which the human voice was stilled. People lost the skill of their fingers, and only the roughest country cloth still found a market among the poorest.” The population of Dhaka fell from several hundred thousand in 1760 to about 50,000 by the 1820s. In contrast was the irresistible rise of Manchester. While the steep winding up of ancient crafts appeared in Britain as a fable of its progress and entrepreneurial genius, it meant the collapse of their world for the desolate weavers; as a consequence, famine-stricken and impoverished Bengal reverted to agriculture. By the 1820s, British exports had ousted the textiles of Bengal from European markets.
In fact, it took Britain more than a century to do anything about improving the working and living conditions in Lancashire, which were also terrible: soot and grime blackened the redbrick streets, lint and dust entered the lungs of the cotton operatives; life expectancy in Manchester in the early 19th century was less than 20 years. The German architect Karl Schinkel visited Britain in 1825, and reported: “The enormous factory buildings are seven to eight stories high… where three years ago these were only meadows”. De Tocqueville wrote in 1835: “A sort of black smoke covers the city. Under this half-daylight 300,000 human beings are ceaselessly at work. The homes of the poor are scattered haphazard around the factories. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows”.
The disorientation of the sometime cotton operatives of Lancashire occurred simultaneously with the reindustrialisation of Bengal, or at least the part that had become Bangladesh. In the past 30 years, the garments industry has grown in Bangladesh even faster than the mushroom-city that was Manchester once upon a time. More than 2,000 factories have come up in Dhaka and almost four million workers in the country are employed in these units. These factories employ young women in particular, whose river-eroded villages and alienated land have driven them to share rooms with half-a-dozen strangers in burning tin huts. They emerge each morning, briefly transforming Dhaka, crowded as never before, into a city of women, before they are swallowed up in the factories; returning home 12 hours later, the colour of their sarees dimmed by pale street lamps. Dhaka is restless and unsettled: unpaid wages, fires that have killed hundreds because of doors locked at night so no worker shall abscond, the collapse of the Rana Plaza building last year — an unconcern for humanity that echoes Manchester’s moment of industrialisation.
Seabrook and the rest of the world have seen enough of industrial society to understand the epic circularity of the dance of capital — from Bengal to Lancashire and back again to Bangladesh. As has been pointed out, “Although its garment workers are the lowest paid in the world, if cheaper labour becomes available elsewhere, Bengal will once more present scenes of dereliction, as factories fall into ruin and lie in heaps of brick, broken masonry and splintered glass.” This has happened with familiar regularity in several situations before and will unfortunately keep happening, not just because the profit motive is so overpowering and poverty is so endemic; it will also happen as the working class does not seem to matter all that much and introducing genuine reforms to improve living and working conditions is on nobody’s agenda in any real sense. The effacement of the past has often been in tandem with the obliteration of memory, of exploitation and loss. This book goes beyond the grim contours of what history has had in store for Dhaka, Manchester and so many other places.