Friday 5 September 2014

Rana Plaza, Bangladesh

Like many I watched in horror the tragic aftermath of the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in  Dakar, Bangladesh. A collapse it would appear because the owner had added three floors without permission rendering it unstable.

No doubt this move was made to house more workers in the textile factories it housed so was generated by greed.

But does the fault lay exclusively with the owner, perhaps it has more to do with the Wests insatiable appetite for ever cheaper clothing and home furnishings. And lots of it, why do we need so many clothes? Gallingly much of which will become tomorrows landfill or charity shop stock.

I went round a Primark store wth my daughter not long ago, browsing the stock I commented to her that there was a price to be paid for clothing this cheap. Both in terms of human cost and pollution.

Twenty years ago India was the market for cheap labour and manufacturing and over that period many became part of a vast middle class who no longer wanted to work in sweatshop conditions.

This is now happening in China, much of the goods we buy are made there. However, as with India, the tide is turning. The younger generation don't want to hand embroider and make the intricate lace they were known for. These are the tradional skills of an aging workforce. Along with massive global hikes in the price of raw cotton wages are rising. The upcoming generation have had a taste of the West and they want some of it: and why not?

I sell patchwork quilts and lace, so it's a market that greatly affects my business. Twenty years ago hand made lace duvet covers were ridiculously cheap to buy. But with the passing of time, the base price has trebled which has meant a dearth of the very items I started with.

The umpalatable truth is the public won't pay the going rate for quality which forces ever more pressure on producers. I work at the cliff face and see it examples of it constantly.

Fifty years ago in this country we had a strong textiles manufacturing base but the working conditions were appalling, to earn a decent wage machinists were on piece work. The speeds they worked at were phenomenal. In other words, a sweatshop. As the Pacific rim opened for business more and more companies moved production out to these countries as there were much lower overheads and labour force.

We have a romantic view of manufacturing in Britain as seen in Danny Boyles Olympic ceremony. Much like his view of the NHS. I did wonder as I watched it,  when the last time was he'd actually been in an NHS hospital as didn't recognise what he was celebrating at all.

The reason there is high unemployment and will remain so is the invention of the silicon chip: technology. What was once made by a hundred people can now be made by a handful or even robots. Whereas in the poorer countries labour is so cheap and working condtions so poorly monitored no one bothers with technology and safe working practices.

Both my parents worked in factories, Dad worked for Fords of Dagenham for fifty years. He was a very good worker who took pride in his job and the finished product. As he neared retirement age, the assembly lines were speeded up. I still remember the disgust I felt when he told me. And after fifty years of gutbusting labour, getting up at 4:30am every day what did they give him: a fucking clock.

Unions played their part in the demise of manufacturing too. My formative years were blighted by endless strikes, both official and non-official: these were truly terrible for families as they had to extra on strike pay which was practically starvation level. And when I took a job in retail, I too was forced to join a union, in those days there wasn't a choice. The shop stewards were onerous characters and often bullies. Anyone who stood up to them and their union were ostracised.

As a member of a union flair and lateral thinking were frowned upon. Whilst ostensibly fighting for the common man it was impossible to be given a raise in wages no matter how much talent or promise someone might show. It could generate a strike. I did indeed nearly bring the whole retail empire to a standstill one memorable day, my crime? To have the temerity to climb a ladder with a pot of paint and a brush. This wasn't part of my job remit. I was eighteen years old.

Unions as far as I could see, weren't interested in the country, riddled with Marxist ideologies, they wanted to bring down the government, frequently holding it to ransom. At the time I remember as a nation we were the laughing stock of Europe. Production so badly affected waiting lists were often in years, not months. So in a way, we were ready for Thatcher and her privatisation of nationalised industries and free market policies.

If people really had a conscience they would boycott the retailers but I know they won't. Just as long as they can keep getting their cheap fix.

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