The Historical Transition of workers rights A cross century comparison

Parallels can be drawn between the 19th and 20th Century textile industries in the UK and the US with countries who currently have a significant garment sector.

Traditionally, garments were produced by people in their own homes. In 1837, Britain was still a rural nation with 80% of the population living in the countryside. Most people were farmers or spun wool and cotton to weave into cloth which then would be made into garments. It was the introduction of new machines and techniques such as the Cotton Gin in 1793, the Power Loom in 1785 and the first Lock-Stitch Sewing Machine by Elias Howe in 1846 that enabled these jobs to be done in a fraction of the time. There was a palpable euphoria at the time surrounding cotton and the new speed of the production process. In fact, it was demonstrated at the Great Exhibition of 1851 where ‘visitors could watch the entire process of cotton production from spinning to finished cloth.’ (Forgan, Sophie (10 February 2000), “A compendium of Victorian culture”, Nature403 (6880): 596) However, these changes left many people out of work, so they flocked to the towns in search of jobs in the resultant industries, causing rapid growth of population in the urban areas .This, in turn, provided manpower for new and ever-larger factories with machines powered in many cases by steam engines – the Industrial Revolution had arrived.

Once the domestic pool of workers had been exhausted, factories were reliant upon migrant labour to maintain industry. In Bradford, districts like “Little Germany” – which draws its name from the German merchants who set up warehouses in the town – grew out of 19th century demand for cloth which was fuelled by a growing population and also the expansion of the British Empire. Spurred by immigration mainly from Germany and Ireland, the population of Bradford had grown to more than 100,000 people by 1851, compared to barely 5,000 just 50 years earlier. Those from Germany were largely trying to escape religious persecution by the authorities whereas for the Irish the famine that engulfed Ireland in the mid-18th century was a major factor.

Similarly, in the US, improvements in technology and infrastructure combined with increased demand brought about massive expansion in the textile industry. Along with more efficient machinery, architectural innovations played a part. Between 1901 and 1911 an average of three new loft buildings were finished every two weeks in Manhattan. The new buildings could engage long rows of sewing machines to a single electric motor by means of a drive shaft and flywheels – a huge improvement over the sweatshop with its pedal-powered machines. However, all the advances would not have brought success without access to a large potential workforce, which a major wave of immigration occurring from the 1880s to 1920 had provided. Many immigrants came to America seeking greater economic opportunity; others were fleeing crop failure, land and job shortages, rising taxes, and famine.  In the instance of New York, around this time there was an influx of Jews escaping from state persecution and horrific pogroms in Eastern Europe. However, legislative regulation of the industry and, in particular, the workers’ rights did not keep up with the pace of other developments.

Modern equivalents can be drawn with the abundant Syrian population now present in Turkey with thousands working in Turkey’s apparel factories. Turkey is the world’s third-largest supplier of clothing after China and Bangladesh, and its garment sector has absorbed hundreds of thousands of Syrians. Although they can now theoretically obtain work permits, only around 7,000 permits have been issued so far. Most of the working Syrians do not have work permits and are desperate to earn an income, which makes them highly vulnerable to exploitation by employers. The clear majority of Syrians continues to be undocumented, which means they lack access to legal employment contracts and social security. Similar situations exist in other countries. Human Rights Watch’s research has found that the human rights and labour rights of migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos working in Thailand have been abused with impunity over the years. Reporting from Mae Sot, a remote town on Thailand’s border with Myanmar, Anthony Faiola wrote in the Washington Post in 2009, “Over the past eight years, textile and shoe factories in the Thai capital boomed, churning out Levi’s jeans and Reebok sneakers to meet record demand in the United States and Europe. When orders bested their capacity to fill them, Bangkok factories subcontracted work to new factories that sprouted up on Thailand’s long and porous western border,” where “thousands of Burmese risked their lives in a quest for jobs in Thailand.” In “Thailand’s Hidden Workforce”, Kyoto Kusakabe focuses on labour issues affecting specifically migrant women workers from Myanmar toiling away in garment factories mainly in Mae Sot in Tak province and the Three Pagoda Pass in Sangkhlaburi. Mae Sot has one of the highest concentrations of migrant workers and garment factories have chosen to relocate to border towns because they want to enjoy advantages that cannot be found in big cities such as cheap labour, lax labour inspections and opportunities for overhead reductions through blatant restrictions of workers’ rights and benefits.

Hence, it can be seen that migrants have always been a significant feature of the garment industry. The workers have moved for reasons of finding freedom from political persecution, economic opportunity and escaping cycles of poverty. However, though this is what they seek, these improvements are not always forthcoming. Many migrants have found themselves faced with an existence straight out of a Thai proverb – escaping from the tiger, but then meeting the crocodile.

Whilst there has been rapid growth in industry – during the past two decades, textile production in Asia has forged further ahead at an average increase of 3.6 percent per year – it has not been coupled with a simultaneously large increase in the prosperity of the workforce. Hazardous working environments are still a staple of the industry. The Rana Plaza in recent times has served as a symbol of an industry which neglects the rights of workers. Direct parallels can be drawn with the Triangle Shirtwaist Co fire in the Asch Building in 1911. In both instances, the characteristics of the factories serve to illuminate trends in the industry more broadly. Predominantly young women – up to 80% – occupied positions with feeble and insecure wage agreements. The abuse of women and migrant workers is endemic to a system which has too often exploited the most vulnerable in the supply chain. With both infamous incidences, the deaths were largely preventable. In the Triangle Shirtwaist Co fire most of the victims died as a result of neglected safety features and locked doors within the factory building. In the Rana Plaza, the day before the collapse workers raised concerns with management with regards to the structural integrity of the building; the warnings were not heeded.

The legacy of both events is enshrined in law by the legislative changes that subsequently occurred. The Sullivan-Hoey fire prevention Law passed seven months after the incident and has played a part crucial in preventing a similar disaster. After the Rana Plaza collapse, two international coalitions were created, designed to assess and help fund improvements to building and fire safety at thousands of garment factories in Bangladesh. Moreover, most European retailers signed up to an Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which oversees more than 1,600 factories used by retailers like H&M, Marks & Spencer and Primark.

However, there was and is a distinct dichotomy between the law and what was and is actually taking place. It is worth considering the introduction of the Factory Acts in Britain throughout the 19th Century, which forbade the employment of children less than nine years of age in all textile mills (excluding lace and silk). The law was very difficult to enforce, as there were few factory inspectors and those who were employed to do this work were poorly paid. There were also many parents who required their children to work and aided factory managers in bypassing this legislation.

Sarah Labowitz, co-director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at the NYU Stern School of business commented three years after the collapse of the Plaza, “there’s definitely more transparency, more attention to the issue of human rights in the global supply chain… but in addressing fire safety, building safety, worker’ protection – there aren’t enough practical discussions around these issues, not enough financing. So not enough has changed.”

Law does not necessarily equate to instantaneous advances for those within the industry. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) have released a number of conventions which have been a source of international law that have been important to workers: Forced Labour Convention, Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, Equal Remuneration Convention, Abolition of forced Labour Convention, Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, Minimum Age Convention, Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention. Despite the aforementioned all being aimed at certifying the rights of workers, these rights are still not easily achieved. The ILO in itself lacks an effective enforcement mechanism, and whilst the human rights treaties have enforcement mechanisms, they are complex and expensive, meaning such mechanisms are not readily available to garment workers whose rights have been infringed. One example of this is the case of forced labour in Uzbekistan. In 2008 the Uzbek Government signed two ILO Conventions, on Minimum Age and one on The Worst Forms of Child Labour, and yet in a 2010 report entitled ‘Slave Nation’, by the Environmental Justice Foundation cites instances of continued mobilisation of child labourers.

Too often things happen with impunity; however, workers exposed to these miscarriages of justice have not been apathetic. In the case of the suffragette and unionisation movements in the late 19th and early 20th century, these organisations were met with great force from authorities and industry. In its 1905 decision in Lochner v. New York (198 U.S. 45), the United States Supreme Court overruled a New York law limiting hours for bakery employees. Rather than being necessary to protect the welfare of the workers, the court found that such legislation regarding hours of work amounted to an unconstitutional attempt to regulate business, and “unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract.” In 1908, for instance, the Court upheld what were known as “ironclad” or “yellow dog” contracts, which forced individual workers to sign an agreement not to join a union in order to secure a job. Also in 1908, the Court found that labour boycotts of employers had been banned by the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Hence, it was not just the owners of the factories who were concerned with their profits but also the authorities who were concerned with the importance of manufacturing to the prosperity of the area as a whole.

Similarly, in 2014 Cambodian workers when faced with a lack of movement in the country’s minimum wage protested their labour rights. This was met with the use of deadly force by security forces to quell the protests in the industrial zones. A report in the Guardian stated, “The textile industry came to Cambodia because labour is cheap relative to other countries, including China. But local traders say they fear one false turn could scare off the industry – and, with it, jobs and investment. This is the logic of a race to the bottom. And, as always, it’s ordinary working people who are on the front line.” Workers in the garment industry in Bangladesh, which accounts for 80% of the country’s exports, have had similar problems when trying to improve their conditions. A Human Rights Watch report has ‘documented cases of physical assault, intimidation and threats, dismissal of union leaders, and false criminal complaints by factory officials or their associates against garment workers’, also stating that ‘the Bangladesh authorities have failed to hold factory officials accountable for attacks, threats, and retaliation against workers involved with unions.’

The late 20th century saw a period of significant change in the concentration of the garment market; since that time, the main producing and exporting countries have almost completely changed. In 1970, among the biggest exporters to US were: Japan, United Kingdom, Canada, Italy and France. By 2011, the USA was receiving most imports from countries like China, Cambodia, Pakistan, Mexico and Bangladesh. Production has, in general, shifted to least developed or developing countries. The bulk of production remains in Asia, although the production market in some non-Asian developing countries is growing, for example in Panama, Chile and Egypt. Countries like Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia have emerged as key players when it comes to exports to the EU-28 countries. Despite these trend changes in the buying and selling of garments internationally, it is telling that the conditions present in the industry can be viewed comparatively despite 100 years separating the some of the events.

We in the West have exported some of the worst characteristics of the industry that we would no longer find palatable in our country and, thanks to our financial power, imported some first-class privileges.


Labour Behind the Label Report 2011

Rana Plaza Clean clothes campaign

(Slave Nation – State-sponsored forced child labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields)