A stitch in time: the ‘orchestrated networks’ of bloody Taylorism - John Barker

'All Enterprises' Factory on fire, Baldia Town, Karchi, September 2012

An analysis of the global clothing supply chain, its technology and organisation of labour; it's historical development and recurring high death rate for workers, with reference to recent factory disasters in Asia.

From its beginnings, the sewing machine’s role in shaping global capitalism has been crucial. In today’s high-tech and globalised production landscape, little about the actual machine has changed. A fact which keeps costs down and makes sewing a point of intensive value extraction in an assymetrical and retailer oriented system. John Barker ties together the threads linking the likes of Walmart and Primark to lethal garment factory conditions around the world

Making hesitant steps during the first half of the 19th century before its appearance as a mass means of production in the 1850s, the sewing machine was, Karl Marx said, the ‘decisively revolutionary machine’. 160 years on, little has changed in its essentials and the sewing machine was being used to smash the window bars of a clothing factory in Baldia town, Karachi, that was making jeans for the German company KiK (Kunde ist König/Consumer is King). Back in 1841 tailors had smashed the 80 such early-type machines in France fearing that they would be put out of work. In Karachi, it was workers desperate to escape the factory fire that would kill 286 of them, having found the exit doors locked. More recently still, it was the vibration of 1,000 such machines, supplemented by that of four generators, which was said to be responsible for the collapse of the Rana Plaza and the death of a 1,000 and more clothing workers.

A first attempt to produce a sewing machine by Thomas Saint in England in 1790 led nowhere, but by the time Joseph Hadersperger had made a prototype machine in 1810 that could make a ‘chain stitch’, that is, every seam sewn with two threads, giving them a new strength, cotton cloth was creating markets on a global scale that had never existed before. The already extensive reach of Indian exported cloth, active for several hundred years, was made global by European ships and the development of the slave labour discipline and management of American cotton plantations. In Vienna, Hadersperger’s invention, as in many such cases, did him no good largely because of the expense and drawn-out nature of trying to renew a patent in the Hapsburg Empire. That was 1818. In 1841, as the machines invented and employed by Barthelemy Thimonnier – 80 of them, producing uniforms for the French army – were being smashed, the American inventor Walter Hunt made the decision not to patent his machine with its eye-pointed needle, precisely for fear it would create unemployment.

By this time patents in the USA were being taken seriously in part because of the near-miss success of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, the invention that made a slave-based cotton plantation system such a profitable proposition, and with it the industrialisation of cotton cloth making. Loopholes in the 1793 USA Patent Act – introduced in the very same year as Whitney’s invention – meant he had also been in danger of losing out. But the use of licensing deals and then the consequent changes in the law meant that he avoided Hadersperger's failure. Since then there has been a to-and-fro between the necessary incentives for innovation, and the incentivisation of capital’s use of it, and this is reflected in how seriously patent law is taken. In the USA, having lapsed in importance, patent law became a major political issue at the start of the 1980s with the Bayh-Dole Act, partly because of the discourse around Japanese ‘copying’. The expansion of the intellectual property regime was also triggered by the belief that in biotechnology most particularly, the USA would be the dominant force in an ascendant technology and, because the individual inventor was a figure of the past, that it was now the business of corporate capital backed by the state. Intellectual property rights are corporate business.

It is with the Singer company and its patent pool of investors that the sewing machine really took off as a worldwide means of production in the 1850s. Timely again – rather like HMV’s need to record music around the world in order to sell its gramophones – cotton cloth manufacturers (by then mostly English) who had always been aware of, and partly created, the demand for specific colours and patterns, became additionally aware that the spread of European fashion, involving cutting and sewing, would boost their cloth sales. As it happened Singer and his ‘pool’ were subject to a patent dispute initiated by one Elias Howe. Its response, to pay him off, was suitably smart for a company whose success was based on marketing and support services and included machines payable on the instalment plan. Its ‘innovation’ was the creation of a brand identity. Early in the 20th century it was the 7th largest company in the world, selling 2 and a half million machines a year (both industrial types and a version for home use).

Image: Isaac Singer's first sewing machine, patented 1851

It employed twice as many workers in its marketing operations as in the actual production of machines. Very modern! This ratio, however, also had to do with the nature of the production itself. Most machines were produced in Glasgow, with a history of religious sectarianism, and where the company refused to recognise any trade union. Despite both this sectarianism and divisions both of gender and skill, nearly the whole workforce came out on strike in 1911. It was finally defeated after the company had gone on the offensive by closing down the factory and making the threat, so familiar today, of moving production elsewhere if the workers continued their strike. How the strike began is especially significant. The company in effect provoked it when three defect repairers were taken off a team of 15 women in the cabinet polishing department, one of 41 departments, so that 12 must do the work of 15 without any increase in pay. This constitutes a direct increase in the intensity of labour.(1) In other instances, as in both industrial weaving and knitting, intensification has come about through technological change with workers having to tend a greater number of ‘efficient’ machines. By the 1990s, workers in North Carolina were running around 12 instead of the three knitting machines of 30 years earlier, work which involved carrying more and heavier yarn cones. For sewing machinists it is liable to be a process of speed-up, a pressurised increase in the quota of completed parts demanded per day or week, coupled with very strict quality controls.


Such speed-up is not unique to the textile and clothing industries. The incidence of worker suicides at the Foxconn plant in southern China, during a period of intense speed-up and pressure in the lead up to the launch of the Apple iPad which was being produced there, created a characteristically brief flurry of media concern.(2) What it also revealed is that the real innovation of capitalist industrial production is not new inventions but its organisation and control of the work being done by workers. In this world patents, like the iPad itself, have a rentier relationship to production.

Since the time of the crash of Lehman Brothers investment bank in 2008, following a series of ‘bubbles’, there has been a focus of critical attention on ‘finance capital’, its political and ideological clout as well as the asset bubbles it creates. Claims are made and realised on more surplus value than is actually being produced. But it is being produced in what is glibly called the ‘real economy’ as if such a thing was somehow ethically superior to finance capital. The narratives have made Goldman Sachs the bad guy and, until recently at least, Apple the pretty good one, even though the investment bank is relatively speaking the little guy. Finance capital’s unstated justification of itself is that it could manage the ‘real’ economy better by: number-crunching accountancy in the service of cost-cutting; making businesses leaner because of its distance from the specific processes of the business regarded as minutiae; and most of all ruthlessness with workers who wouldn’t even know who to negotiate with.

But these ‘advantages’ have, in the clothing business and others, been superfluous. Industry and retail oligopoly managers are not there to be negotiated with, held to account in even the most minute way, because the business is built on a chain of contractors and sub-contractors. Describing outsourced Mexican clothes factories Jane Collins writes, ‘rather than engaging in daily face-to-face relations with the firm’s owner, a worker had to conduct what amounted to a research project to identify the individuals who had responsibility for conditions of work.’(3) In the clothing industry, only if hundreds of people die in a factory do they become briefly visible, with labels like Tommy Hilfiger named in at least two fatal Bangladesh factory deaths; retailers like WalMart and Primark likewise.

Image: Clothes rails at Walmart

Crucial to the business of international clothing brands is the ‘sourcing’ of professionals (either in or out-house) who decide where, and with whom components of their final products will be made. Sourcing as a business, like the pioneering and powerful Li&Fung, sees itself as supply chain manufacture management.(4) This is the modern version of the pre-industrial ‘putting-out’ system of ‘dispersed manufacture’, one made possible and accelerated by developments in IT at many levels.(5) With sophisticated IT in place, decision criteria involve trade regulations and quotas of what one country can produce for others.(6) This has become more complicated, requiring more forward intelligence as western powers find the universality of WTO rules irksome and increasingly make bilateral trade deals with weaker, poorer countries. Reliable performance is another criterion, with stand and deliver speed turnaround/lead times. Li&Fung make a point of how they have built up a huge network of supplying factories – ‘We orchestrate networks’ – while saying that they want no responsibility for them and so have a rule to take between 30 and 70 percent of the production of a single factory.(7) However, when push comes to shove and with transport and transaction costs historically low, it is the cheapness of labour costs that are the real arbiter. In some instances, like Walmart (leaders in in-house sourcing) in China in the 1990s, they are proactive in pushing the ‘China price’ down still further. Since then, significantly lower wages in Bangladesh have seen many jobs shifted there from China. Now, ‘lean retailing’ on top of buyer-led supply chain manufacture has increased sector wide pressure by pushing ‘inventory risk’ on down the contracting chain.


This all depends on, and is an extension of, the division of labour of the Adam Smith variety which has been a constant of capitalist ideology and practice for over 250 years. Its ‘scientific’ rationale was then given international scope some years later by David Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage, another long lasting ideological prop which assumes a blindness to the realities of a global hierarchy of power and consequent ‘uneven development’ in international trade. A case of selective blindness then and now. And when both were writing, a racialised division of labour was already in a continuous state of development through European dominance of the ‘New World’. As productive strategy, the Adam Smith variety (proactively refined by F.W. Taylor at the beginning of the last century with the hierarchical division between conception and execution at its heart) is one of deskilling and the disciplining of labour.(8) Another type, loosely labelled as ‘artisan’ involved various groups of skilled workers working on different processes of the same product, like the highly successful cotton cloth export business of 17th and 18th century India with its wide variety of cloth ‘finishers’, dyers, painters, printers, bleachers and so on.

The, by then, dominant Adam Smith version is described by Marx in Grundrisse as one in which the worker-producer’s demands have become many-sided, while his product has become one-sided. Taking this further Susan Buck-Morss describes the sleight-of-hand whereby the impoverished producer shows up on the stage again, this time as the well-clad consumer.(9) On the now planet-sized stage, the categories of producer and consumer, split ideologically as if they were never the same person, is an easier reality to portray. One consequence is that ethical campaigning for South Asian sewing machinists for example, is faced with the ‘tyranny of distance’ in trying to mobilise western consumer support. There has been no basis, however, to the promises of a fairer distribution of goods that the division of labour’s boost of production would ensure. As Jane Collins says, Mexican car workers will not be able to afford the VWs they make ‘but more poignantly, the apparel workers who sew a hundred pairs of $100 jeans will never be able to afford a single pair.’(10)

Capitalism’s characteristic ability to organise labour preceded Smith-style division of labour. The putting-out system, existent in Europe from the 14th century, was a form of dispersed manufacturing whereby merchant capital organised weaving and spinning without the need of its own workplace. There was also a pre-industrial experience of mass production, of military uniforms most of all. It’s not then surprising that Thimonnier’s sewing machines were producing them for the French army. We do not know if each machinist produced whole uniforms or just the one component part, but the sewing machine was made for such a process of breaking down the operations to make any one garment possible. While the Adam Smith version assumes what, until recently, was the dominant rationale of capitalist production, namely economies of scale – which still justifies the concentration of capitals (oligopolies) in many sectors from retail to cloth production – production operates without it in the modern form of dispersed manufacturing in the clothing sector. A small factory specialising in button-hole sewing’s ‘economy’ is not one of scale, but of super-exploitation of labour. Economies of scale are at the purchasing end, ‘orchestrated’ by Li&Fung for example, who can buy cloth in bulk at cheaper rates for such small factories.

Image: A Jacquard loom workshop, Germany 1851

Sewing was already integral to both western and Muslim societies. Girls coming from the Foundling Foundation at Coram Fields were taught to sew there as the only means of making a living in 18th century London with, no doubt, a high degree of self-exploitation. Marx’s gloomy view of the ‘decisively revolutionary machine’ held it to be a force for the deskilling of workers and ‘the fearful increase in death from starvation during the last ten years [which] runs parallel with the extension of machine sewing’. But this precluded that, requiring no electricity and availability on the instalment plan, it might also be a means of production for individual women, and provide the possibility of self-employment, of autonomy. Singer had started with a machine specifically for industrial production, but then produced one for domestic use. But on the victimhood-‘agency’ axis, there is a world of difference between a European seamstress say for Comme des Garcons or people currently deciding to make their own clothes, and the super-exploited ‘homeworkers’ described by Jose Antonio Alonso in 1980s Neza, Mexico, or in contemporary India.(11) It’s a difference not measured in present-day statistics for sewing-machine sales (approximately 25 million a year), which simply show that domestic models have done rather better than factory models in the post-2008 recession, but it’s likely that the double exploitation of women doing piece rate work at home has increased.

In terms of global significance, the machine allowed Smith-variety division of labour to go a step further, so that at the very time F.W. Taylor was analysing worker knowledge and technique for the purpose of deskilling and thereby aiding specifically capitalist organisation and control of labour early in the 20th century, and indeed having his methods applied at the Singer factory in Glasgow, the process of making a jacket in New York had been divided into 37 unskilled sewing tasks. It was to be applauded by employers for ‘the unerring accuracy that is gained by years of practice at one thing only.’ In the same city just nine years later, women doing these unskilled sewing tasks were burned to death in the the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

Image: Bodies of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, New York, March 1911

Talking of sewing, Angela Coyle says ‘The ability to work at high-speed is a skill itself, inadvertently created by deskilling.’(12) It is, with Taylor’s Scientific Management in mind just the ‘inadvertent’ one might question. His concern is with precisely how to achieve ‘faster work’. The management, Taylor writes,

must supply continually one or more teachers to show each new man the new and simpler motions, and the slower must be constantly watched and helped until they have risen to their proper speed. All of those who, after proper teaching, either will not or cannot work in accordance with the new methods and the highest speed must be discharged.(13)

Such emphasis and method was not entirely new. The cotton that supplied the material to be sewn by Singer machines was being tended and harvested by slaves in the southern USA in a managed gang system with ‘the most able hands’ setting the pace. Planters were, Douglass C. North notes, in effect experimenting with ‘scientific management of labour.’

Meanwhile the breakdown of tasks has changed little: counting in detail the practices of a US outsourced factory in Mexico in the late 1990s, Jane Collins describes the 30 discrete operations it requires to make a pair of jeans. But in addition to speed-ups new systems of monitoring and control have been added. As well as the standard, invariably sexist bullying of the maquiladoras, ‘Managers measured production values that were formerly unmeasurable and held workers to more difficult standards than any imposed by the industry to date. Quality was achieved not by developing workers’ skills but by intensifying control.’ This involved the use of Statistical Process Control (SPC) which put all the onus for quality on the machinist. By having a statistical sampling of garments from each work station. It was described by managers as ‘controlling critical variables’ on the line rather than checking the garments after the fact, and the SPC of each worker could be read by them in their offices.(14) The pressure to meet SPC quality standards, while at the same time sticking to standards for speed and efficiency, created rarely measured stress. The concept of burn-out and its often real manifestations has been almost exclusively applied to professional or ‘creative’ working people, fashion designers included. The reality is far more likely to be one for sewing machinists who execute their designs in such circumstances. Bhati and Kumar in a rare study of clothing workers in India, say ‘Burn-out is liable to kick-in after just 7 years.’ In Jane Collins’ Mexico study, four years was the average length of service in a factory, and within a short period 75 percent of women who were healthy when they started developed a range of physical illnesses. All due to industrial threats and workplace pressure.


What with the huge literature on Fordism and post-Fordism, it has been too easy not to see how much capitalist accumulation remains dependent on Taylorist-style manufacturing. Alain Lipietz’s phrase ‘Bloody Taylorism’ offers some alternative, but whereas Taylorism is inherently bloody, his concept specifically describes such work under authoritarian governments. It applies most directly to the post-war history of South Korea whose economic ‘miracle’ was no miracle at all, but built on mostly young women working 16 hour days for minimal wages in factories where they could not stand straight, bullied, their heroic union-formations brutally attacked, and often forced to take a speed drug called ‘Timing’. As recently as 1988, 21 young women died in the dormitory of such a factory from a fire in the workshop below. They made clothes for export and, in the process, created the surplus value used to develop the hi-tech industries the country now boasts, including the development of some of the very software used for supply chain management. This jump, the idea that clothing manufacture is a starter industry that will lead to fuller industrial development, is unlikely in the present or foreseeable future. Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea are one-offs. As for clothes and textiles themselves, as soon as trade unions were legalised, Korean firms outsourced and began to control textile companies in Central America and Bangladesh. It was outside one such Korean-owned company that a protesting Bangladeshi worker was shot dead by the police in 2010.

It is in that country that clothing Taylorism has been most bloody. Worse, in the last 9 months in Pakistan and Bangladesh there have been over twice the number of deaths in clothing factories than in those reported in the whole of the last 25 years. Why should this have been the case when there have been NGO campaigns, publicity and even a ‘multi-stakeholder’ conference on the theme of clothing factory safety which took place just one week before 24 workers were killed and many more terribly injured by a 2010 fire at the Ha-Meem group’s ‘That’s It Sportswear’ factory in Dakha? This was caused, as so often before, by an electrical short circuit and locked emergency exit doors. The main narrative is of really bad guys, owners of the factories. And they are, no mistake, greedy and careless of the lives of people who work for them, barring windows and exit gates, forcing workers back into factories where there are cracks in the walls, or telling workers to ignore a fire alarm as happened in the worst ever Bangladeshi fire at Tazreem Fashions where 120 died in November 2012, just 2 months after the deaths of the 286 clothing workers in Karachi. Both there and in Dhaka, the stories are horribly familiar, involving the circumvention of building rules and non-existent architects. These owners are no innocents. As reported in the persevering and model accounts of Bangladesh by Red Marriott on the Libcom website, ‘the elite of local factory bosses have […] attained a luxurious lifestyle with swimming pools.’(15) In the case of the horrendous Rana Plaza collapse he notes that Sohel Rana is known as an Awami League (ruling party) muscleman in the area and ‘maintains gangs of youths.’ The League’s leader, Sheikh Hasina was quick to say in a CNN interview that ‘Anywhere in the world, any accident can take place’, as if the regularity of such high-fatality accidents in Bangladeshi clothing factories over the last 13 years had never happened.

Image: Mass grave that had been the Rana Plaza factory, Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 2013

No innocents, but generally the very infrastructure of electricity and construction simply does not match the scope and intensity of contractual demands accepted by them, the ‘really bad guys’, but which are made by big capital retailers and labels. The cause of most deadly fires has been electrical short-circuiting, with circuits, like the workers themselves, overloaded. With the Rana Plaza horror, the need for generators was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The power relationship is already one-sided, given the sheer financial weight of the buyers, the concentration of capital at the retail end, and the constant threat to move production contracts elsewhere. It has become still more so as fashion design has become more fabric determined, with its feel, dye quality and pattern assuming a greater importance. The production of cloth, in which technological developments in spinning, weaving, dyeing and finishing have been constant, is increasingly capital-intensive. It is these parts of the business which are more likely to be directly controlled by labels, whereas the sewing machine has changed little. True, machines have been developed to deal with stretch fabrics and the switching of stitching styles. More specifically Elna, for example, has developed overlock and computerised embroidery sewing machines, but those used in the thousands of Asian factories have changed very little. ‘The sewing itself is not all that different from what it was one hundred years ago.’(16)

Most of all, developments in logistics and transport described by Brian Ashton, in addition to relatively cheap transport oil, provided the means for ‘buyer-driven commodity chains.’(17) While the basics of the sewing machine have not changed, the container and bar-coding arrived almost simultaneously in the 1970s. Further IT developments in warehousing, point-of-sales transmission (‘high-frequency’ information) have done more than just reduce transaction costs, they have created ‘economies of scale’ in the very business of ‘managing’ supply chains.

These developments have allowed for what is called ‘lean retailing’ whereby low inventories are held by retailers. Via the strategies of Li&Fung, for whom, says Victor Fung, ‘inventory is the root of all evil’, Benetton, Liz Claiborne and, more recently, Zara, have developed a just-in-time model which pushes the risk of holding stock down the chain to their contractors.(18) In addition, as is also true of Los Angeles’ sweatshops, the outsourced contractor has also been subject to a more old fashioned strategy of risk shifting, and pressure has been used: the rejection of stock on the grounds of a buyer-perceived fault.(19) In recent times this has included the very packaging and labelling of clothes, which must exactly match the buyer’s specifications.


The slogan of the Aguascalientes union federation, whose factories Jane Collins described, was ‘FOR WORKERS THERE IS NO WORSE COMPANY THAN THE ONE THAT CLOSES’. She also cites its smug ‘neoliberal’ equivalent, ‘A SWEATSHOP IS BETTER THAN NOTHING’, a headline of one Daniel L. Jacobs in The LA Times (25 April 2001). There are many versions of this sophistry: having a job at all is a luxury; having a job in the most dangerous and exhausting factory is better than being a peasant farmer (while the author’s of these slogans are busy, as in Cambodia grabbing the land of such farmers so that they have no choice but to submit). It is also a smugness that arises from an awareness that, from this point of view, there is a ‘surplus’, and therefore expendable population. In the case of the clothes industry it is as if many were lucky precisely because the cloth is a ‘limp’ material and the sewing machine has not much developed. There is a further deception involved in the capitalist (‘neoliberal’) account; by a sleight of hand it suggests that such factory work is part of the ‘formal economy’. The language itself is deceptive: ‘informal’ is used as if it described a convivial social gathering rather than scraping a living together in the cracks, and ‘formal’ implies the ‘privilege’ of contractual arrangements. The real world is one of the informalised formal economy. When 286 workers died in Karachi’s Baldia clothing factory fire in September 2012, only then did it become public knowledge that just approximately 100 out of 1,000 workers were registered as working there. With the result that some of the dead bodies, despite DNA analysis, remain without names, disrespected in death as in life.(20)

Subsequently there was a wringing of hands and a campaign in Pakistan itself that went beyond the statements and condemnations of NGOs like the CleanClothes group. As I write this, the horror of a 1,000 deaths in the Rana Plaza is provoking a hand-wringing by major labels and retailers that may have consequences.(21) In 1834, Alice Kessler-Harris, an American woman activist argued that:

I do not see how these grinding evils of small pay and unjust treatment from employers can be remedied except by holding up to public gaze and reflection the names and places of business of those who are living on the tears, pain and toil of the daughters of Free America.(22)

Some nearly 80 years later after a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City had killed 146, mostly women seamstresses – a now familiar story of murderously stingy employers locking exit doors – Rose Schneiderman, a militant survivor had a different take:

I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. Yes, we have tried you citizens; we are trying now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions the strong arm of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us […] I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood is being spilled. (23)

Given the deaths of the last nine months it is impossible not to be sceptical about corporate responses and tragedies. After all, the Baldia town factory in Karachi had been given a stamp of approval by the ‘non-profit-making’ USA-based monitoring group Social Accountability International of the safety standards of the factory on 20 August, just a few weeks before 286 people died there. They gave it an SA 8000 certificate meaning it meets international standards in nine areas includes health and safety, child labour and minimum wages.(24) Similarly, Red Marriott citing The Wall Street Journal reports that at least two garment factories in the Rana Plaza had passed international labour and safety standard audits by the Business Social Compliance Initiative.(25)

Such justifiable scepticism, as yet another ‘standards’ group is set up by retailers and labels themselves (without Walmart), is not going to be, however modestly, of any help in effectively supporting clothing workers viewed by capital as wholly expendable. Neither is the theoretical narcissism of the worker-as-victim – worker’s-agency axis. So far, a politics of shame has had little or no impact on a shameless class. The present CEO at Li&Fung, the world’s largest ‘sourcing’ company, Bruce Rockowitz was sure ‘There are some people who want to move completely away from Bangladesh, but there are only a few of them.’(26) And where to? To Cambodia, where just a few days after Rana Plaza, a fire killed several workers in a shoe factory and where a strike at a factory producing for Nike is facing extreme police violence.

Image: 415 workers sacked after striking for a $14 per month rise, at the Sabrina factory, Kampong Speu province, Cambodia

A Harvard Business School research paper coming in the wake of last year’s deadliest Bangladeshi textile factory fire re-shifts the notion of shame onto the individual consumer who ‘say they are against sweatshop labour, but yet are interested in buying things that they know are made with sweatshop labour’, explicable, the research says by, ‘the tyranny of distance.’ This ‘ethical’ shaming however has the same whiff of moralising as so often applied to a working class desire for smart clothes. There was no such pressures on Apple Mac or iPad owners despite worker and environmental protest in China after the Foxconn suicides and allegations of polluting. It also ignores how cheap but smart clothes have a structural role in reducing the cost of reproduction of labour power in an age of austerity, when its costs have been pushed more and more heavily on the individual producer-consumer. Clothing prices have fallen by 10% in each of the last 2 decades and are falling faster now.

The 1834 activist’s idea was different; it was those who profited from the disregard of workers’ rights and safety who should be directly shamed. As we know recently from Spain, elites do not like shaming at their houses, and this is surely not going to be different for the corporate chiefs of retailers and labels. Such personal shaming should also apply to the designers of clothes made in conditions where people die in the process. The question then is what should such shaming aim to achieve. Rose Schneiderman’s angry speech, which must have shamed its audience, was however made to argue that what really mattered was worker self-organising and that if a shamed audience were to do anything it must support that. In the wake of the Rana Plaza mass killings, the Bangladesh government has said it will legalise trade unions. There is no point in trying to second-guess whether this will bureaucratise and drain away the militancy of workers, or be an effective vehicle for workers’ rights when so many have died in a world of outsourced danger. What matters is that, in whatever way, western shaming can be effective so that the government does not backtrack or make unions into party tools. Self-organisation is vital, but we should not fetishise it either since alliances are also often needed. Last year’s successful struggle by Burmese migrant women working inside the network of ‘international supply chain manufacture’ for the M Apparel company, who supply Lee Jeans in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, is one possible model. Fighting, against all the odds, for unpaid back pay and a wage increase, the women showed both great courage and tactical nous, but were pleased to get the support of two Thai NGOs.

What we can do as ‘allies’ in the present is to support the FTUWCK union and its hundreds of women machinists on strike in Cambodia at the Sabrina (Cambodia) Garment Manufacturers who produce for Nike.(27) The strike began on 21 May and is for a $14 a month rise which would – despite Nike’s Pontius Pilate-style flim-flam – match minimum wage standards which are slightly above those of Bangladesh but approximately half those in China. With presidential elections due, which are expected to prolong the 28 year rule of the Han Seng government, the context is one of Bloody Taylorism. On 3 June 2013, a demonstration by workers trying to stop the minority of scabs working was attacked with extreme 1000-strong police violence, water cannon, tear gas and batons. Nike was briefly embarrassed because a woman worker lost her baby as a consequence. On the 6 June there were more protests for the release of those arrested. The company’s response? To sack 288 ‘ringleaders’. We should of course be aware that in Britain, attempts by strikers to stop scabs working would also be met with the full force of legal and police violence, but this should not prevent us from pressurising Nike as much as possible. They are, it has to be said, pretty shame-proof. After Phil Nike’s bluff was called, to his face, with an air ticket to Phnom Penh by Michael Moore, one would have thought they might have had enough of looking like the cheapskates they are. Clearly shaming must be persistent to be effective and is more important than ever since the strike appears to be weakening as the company, backed by the state that does not want a repeat of the 2012 strike wave, takes a hard line.

John Barker (harrier AT easynet.co.uk) is a collaborator in ‘Stitch in Time’, part of the ongoing artistic research Loomshuttles/Warpaths by the artist Ines Doujak. The main body of the work so far can be seen at www.inesdoujak.net


1) See John Barker ‘Intensities of Labour: From Amphetamine to Cocaine’ for an outline of ‘intensity’ as hidden in the capitalist term ‘productivity’, Mute, 7 March 2006, http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/intensities-labour-amphetamine-to-cocaine

2) This is not exclusively a Chinese ‘problem’. In 2010 and again more recently similar sweatshop conditions have been revealed at its plant in Australia.

3) Jane Collins, Threads: Gender Labor and Power in the Global Apparel Industry, University of Chicago, 2003 p.145.

4) Li&Fung is a Hong Kong-based transnational company.

5) Li& Fung’s ‘flexibility’ depended on its own proprietory XTS management system with its huge database. There is also sourcing software like that of NGC Software which advertises a Product Lifestyle Management (PLM) programme. It is, it says of itself, a ‘top-rated solution for fashion brands and retailers offering unsurpassed productivity improvement at every stage of the development place. It provides companies with real-time visibility to product data...’ and so forth.

6) In a case of unintended consequences, the outsourcing of and component-dividing production within Asia began when quota limits were placed on exports of clothing and textiles from Hong Kong in 1964, at a time when the MFA was set up to defend western companies in the sector.

7) ‘It is important to have a significant proportion of the business of your suppliers but not all.’ Victor Fung head of Li& Fing in an interview with Joan Magretta in Harvard Business Review, September-October 1998 p103.

8) It is not as if it were inbuilt to cloth production. Andean weavers conceived the complex patterns they wove and executed them as part of that process. Similarly the silk weavers of Lyon in the early 19th century using Jacquard looms did the same, always conscious of a sense of beauty.

9) Susan Buck-Morss: ‘Envisioning Capital: Political Economy on Display’, in Visual Display: Culture Beyond Appearance, Lynne Cooke and Peter Wollen (eds.), The New Press, 1998.

10) Jane Collins, op. cit., p.168

11) Jose Antonio Alonso, ‘The Domestic Clothing Workers in Women and the International Division of Labour’, in Women Men and the International Division of Labour, June Nash and Patrica Fernandez-Kelly (eds.), Albany:State University of New York Press, 1983. He makes the point that very few of its domestic workshops are registered and gives a specific Mexican account of the uneven distribution of profits in the industrial sector in favour of the capital-intensive part.

12) Cited by Jane Collins, op. cit., P30.

13) F.W. Taylor: The Principles of Scientific Management: WW Norton 1967 p 83 (first published 1911)

14) Jane Collins op. cit., p.140.

15) www.libcom.org

16) Caitrin Lynch, ‘The Good Girls of Sri Lankan Modernity’, Identities 6 No1, 1999, p.7.

17) See Brian Ashton, ‘The Factory Without Walls’, Mute, 14 September 2006, http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/factory-without-walls

18) Zara and its parent company Inditex, a recent favourite with the Harvard Business Journal, with the most sophisticated warehousing system with underground tracks that move finished garments to chutes so that each Zara store is sent the right package at the right time, and constant tracking of customer preferences with detailed analysis of product life styles, needless to say, wears its dirty underwear in Bangladesh where another seven women workers, killed in a fire at Smart Export Garments in Januray of this year, were making its clothes.

19) This is a tactic with a history, used by the East India Company against Indian weavers on the Coromandel coast and one cause of weaver campaigns against the company in the late 18th century.

20) In late May 2013, 30 families are still waiting for recognition of dead workers to prompt the payment of compensation and the same thing is already happening for many of the dead of the Rana Plaza.

21) Companies like H&M, but not Walmart.

22) Alice Kessler-Harris, A History of Wage Earning Women in the United States, Oxford University Press 2003, p79.

23) www.historymatters.gmu.edu.d/5480

24) Social Accountability International receives financial-backing from 20 TNCs that contribute $10-65,000 annually, and includes GAP, Walt Disney, Gucci and HP. But SAI said they had contracted it out to the Italian RINA group which carried the audit on its behalf. RINA says it has done 540 such inspections for SAI including 100 in Pakistan. The RINA (Registro Italiano Navale Grupo) audit report says ‘Access to fire extinguishers and passges leading to exits was maintained free from any kind of obstruction. Primary exits and emergency exits are kept unlocked while employees are inside the facility […] Emergency procedures exist, including record of regular emergency drills, fire-fighting training.’

25) Set up by the Brussels-based Foreign Trade Association. Needless to say they were quick to say it was not their fault, they were not building engineers, they said, and did not take the state of the edifice into account.

26) The New York Times, 16 May 2013.

27) Thanks to theordoradorno666 for making the strike known.

Source; Mute Magazine