Smashing H&M in South Africa: not the first attack on the garment supply chain (and not the last either!)

A H&M that's seen better days, South Africa.

Hand-wringing over the trashing of a few H&M branches in South Africa ignores the often highly militant struggles of the workers in H&M's supply chain (and others like it), themselves often women of colour and one of the most combative sections of the international working class.

Following their recent racist ad campaign, H&M were hit by protests which saw branches in South Africa trashed by protesters. In response, H&M have closed all their shops in the country.

The response to this from some quarters has been mixed, arguing that the people who will ultimately pay the price will be working-class black people whose jobs as shop assistants or security guards at H&M will now be at risk.

This seems a slight overreaction: firstly, the shops haven't shut permanently so no one's losing their job. And secondly, the people working the factories make clothes for companies like H&M smash their factories up on a pretty regular basis.

Another common refrain is to ask why the people protesting the ad campaign didn't protest H&M's racist and exploitative supply chain, where mostly women of colour work in dangerous conditions for low pay. This completely ignores that there is massive resistance to those conditions by garment industry workers themselves, who in the liberal mindset are the helpless victims of global brands rather than some of the most combative members of the international working class.

Let's look at some recent episodes of textile workers smashing the garment industry's shit up:

Last year there was a factory uprising at a Chinese-owned H&M supplier in Myanmar. According to media accounts, the riot followed a months-long strike for unpaid overtime that had resulted in the factory’s union leader being fired. Machinery was wrecked, the manager was attacked and five supervisors taken hostage. It took a police rescue operation initiated by the Chinese embassy to free the hostages.

Another group of Myanmar garment workers, at a sock factory this time, also took their bosses hostage last year. Over 200 workers escalated their strike against the unfair dismissal of a union activist by setting up barricades around the factory with bosses trapped inside with one striking worker saying: "The factory officials violated the law. They fired us without proper reasons. Now we’re also forced to break the law."

Taking our discussion to India, in 2015, after a worker was attacked for arriving ten minutes late, hundreds of workers at an H&M supplier in Delhi, joined by hundreds more local workers, went on the rampage, attacking six factories and torching cars. Indeed, between early 2014 and mid-2015, there have been numerous struggles by, often female, garment workers in Delhi’s industrial belt taking the form of riots and mass protests.

However, due perhaps to the higher concentration of garment workers (and the tragic events that often befall them), it is in Bangladesh that some of the most militant struggles in the garment industry have been fought. In 2008, garment workers in Dhaka attacked 15 factories and four shopping centres in response to the increase in 'Ansar men', a civilian volunteer defence group auxiliary to the professional security forces, being stationed in factories to police the garment workers' activities. A year later, workers at a Ready Made Garment factory set fire to an Ansar camp in their factory after the 'volunteer defense' force had fired on a crowd of strikers, killing one worker. Going back even further, to 2006, over 100 factories, three shopping centres and 50 vehicles were attacked by thousands of striking workers in Dhaka.

Yet garment workers' struggles are not merely Asian phenomena. In 2007, 24,000 workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla al-Kubra, Egypt, went on wildcat strike (twice), occupying their factory. While in 2008, 16,000 mostly female textile workers went on strike in Swaziland, clashing with riot police who attacked with clubs and teargas.

As Beverly Silver explains in her amazing book, Forces of Labour, the militancy we see in India, Bangladesh, Egypt and Myanmar has been exported from the relocated textile factories of the US and Europe. In 1912, 20,000 workers in Lawrence Massachusetts faced down the local militia and threw chunks of ice at them in what would become one of the iconic labour disputes of American history.

In 1934 over 300,000 textile workers were on strike in the US, organising flying squadrons, kidnapping strikebreakers and fighting running battles with the police and national guard. Only a couple years earlier in 1932, thousands of textile workers in Stalin's Russia went on strike, rallying in the town centre and attempting to march to the Ivanovo Industrial Region, clashing with the OGPU secret police on the way.

What bosses in the textile industry thought would be a solution to militant working-class movements at home have turned out to be, at best, only temporary solutions. In relocating factories, bosses only relocated worker militancy.

So, to return to the initial point of this blog, the idea that some people knocking things over in a H&M in South Africa are committing some heinous crime against other working-class people is a nonsense. The struggles of garment industry workers are often far more violent and destructive, but are massively overlooked. Stop playing silly respectability politics and start fighting.