Thomas Hood’s 1843 poem Song of the Shirt is the title of ‘labour chronicler’ Jeremy Seabrook’s latest book. Hood’s poem, a scathing indictment of industrial Britain, was written in memory of Mrs. Biddell, a widowed seamstress caught in a debt trap, compelled to pawn the clothes she made in order to feed her malnourished child.
Seabrook picks the weft thread of Hood’s poem and weaves a grim, unforgiving human tapestry of Bangladesh’s garment industry. His book is a bleak anthem to a country on the throes of an inhuman globalisation process, its poor subjected to never-ending penitential labour.
From early path-breaking works like The Unprivileged and City Close-up (in the mid-1960s) to Pauperland in 2013, few have been as successful in making the complexities of the working class experience as accessible as Seabrook. His style, meshing rigorous research with prose of superlative literary quality and economy, has found many imitators in the former Indian subcontinent where narratives chronicling the ‘other’ India or Pakistan have spawned a veritable publishing industry.
These narratives broadly fall into two categories: the dreary, formalistic subaltern treatise or the ‘development porn’ style which exuberantly employs literary devices like magic realism to chronicle slums to itinerant labourers to farmer suicides. But Seabrook, no crabbed socialist or overweening celebrity radical, effortlessly lays bare the monstrosity of Bangladesh garment industry — that Frankenstein’s Monster erected by the country’s consumerist elite, ruthlessly devouring its rural populace.
If the late Christopher Hitchens staked claim to be heir to the Orwell of 1984, then Seabrook surely is the unsung heir to the Orwell of Down and out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. Structured in the classic labour investigation format, his book masterfully melds personal stories of young women in garment factories with embedded histories of Bangladesh, its great rivers, Kolkata, the twilight of the Mughal rule and the rapaciousness of the East India Company. An apocalyptic atmosphere hovers over Seabrook’s descriptions as he chronicles the inexorable decay of Bangladesh’s great cities — Barisal, Dhaka, Murshidabad. He expertly cross-cuts between the nihilistic present and the dark past, contrasting textile industries in 21st century Bangladesh with those in 19th century Manchester and Lancashire.
He details the sharp vicissitudes in fortunes of weavers across two continents as the loss of the weaving industry to Bengal in the late 18th century coincided with the rise of mechanised production of cotton goods in Manchester and its satellite towns. Seabrook consummately lays bare evidence of the debilitating effects of the garment industry on its rural populace. A disturbing pattern is etched of life before and after the decline of weaving in Bengal, which subsequently led to the emergence of Dhaka as “a labour camp masquerading as a city”.
Sample some facts: 80 per cent of the Bangladesh’s foreign exchange today is dependent upon this single industry. Between 80 and 90 per cent of these workers are women. Most of them are minors, whose workday never seems to end in cramped 16-storey buildings highly susceptible to fire. These 12-year-olds, hurtled into the big cities from their idyllic villages, form what Seabrook poignantly calls the “disposable rags of humanity”. Their happiness is purchased for 1200 tanka (15$) by callous, profit-seeking factory owners while they slave away their childhood in “a vast machine (the garment industry) for enriching the elites”. Up to 60 per cent of Dhaka’s garment industries stand on insecure ground, liable to collapse like a house of cards at the faintest tremors of an earthquake. Almost all of Bangladesh bureaucrats and politicians have a stake in at least one of these big garment concerns. In fact, Seabrook begins his book not with a litany of the fires that have ravaged garment factories claiming hundreds, but with an infamous building collapse on the edge of Dhaka on April 2013 that claimed 1,100 lives.
In the last decade, at least 500 workers, mostly women, have been claimed by fire accidents. “There is a heavy and tragic irony in these burnt offerings,” writes Seabrook, noting that while water, in the form of floods or cyclones usually has been the harbinger of death for the people of Bangladesh, perhaps fire was “a fitting agent of destruction today” as it symbolized industrial development.
In his works, Seabrook often uses pleonexia — the morbid desire for possession — to damningly arraign the consumerist elite in the U.S. and the U.K. The term is eminently germane to the ruling elites of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan as well. He is endlessly quotable, expressing his thought in cadences of haunting poetic power. Comparing the appalling conditions of Bangladesh’s garment factory workers with the unthinking consumption of those garments in Britain, Seabrook remarks that “manufacturing in Britain is a buried civilization, obliterated by palaces of merchandise – including those garments from Bangladesh, the stitching of which is now invisible to the eyes of people who have raised their gaze from loom and machine (those who toiled in the mills of Manchester) and fixed it on the goods which it is now their privilege to consume.”
Bangladesh’s garment workers have few crutches to fall back on, except, perhaps nostalgia — which the author describes as “a costless luxury of the exploited of posterity.” Seabrook has transformed labour writing into an art, and Song of the Shirt is testament to an artist at the height of his powers.
- The Hindu