The invisible hands

|The invisible hands

November, 2020

Understanding society’s role in the treatment of garment workers with the help of the Wizarding World

5 minutes read

It was only in the fourth year of school that Harry and his friends discovered that their meals were cooked, their beds were made, and their rooms were cleaned by creatures that, they didn’t know, stayed in Hogwarts. Was it their privilege in the world of wizardry that prevented them from questioning who cooked for them? Or perhaps, who wants to think of whose labour went into preparing the delicious chicken legs that one is devouring while talking about how to get by another class of Professor Snape? 

While as women it is difficult to judge why we wear what we wear, it is nonetheless very easy to notice a drastic change in clothing pattern of women, especially of women in the urban centers of India in the past few decades. Women around the world pushed to gain liberation for their bodies, and rightfully so, women should by all means have the right to decide what they wear and how to ‘be’. In urban centres, an aspiration to copy the aesthetics of the West can be seen. There might be nothing inherently wrong about women wanting to switch to skirts from sarees for their own comfort, but this decision has cost, atleast for Indian women, heavily on their pockets and time. Indian women have several categories of clothing in their wardrobe, casual wear, party wear with a little bling, a couple of sarees for family functions, office wear to look formal (so your boss could take you seriously), the classic black kurta for ice-cream dates, so on and so forth. While the size of wardrobes of urban women have been increasing, the wallets of women working in factories to make the very same clothes have been shrinking. While bodily rights have different meaning for university-educated, corporate job holding women, for women working in unsafe garment factories rights over their own body might mean control over their own labour (by no means does one hold less importance than the other), apart from many other things. It is rather ironic that women who make it possible for other women to choose between the aforementioned skirt or a saree can barely make that choice themselves. Garments have always been representative of class – dress simple and classy and you’re rich; put too much effort and you’re tacky and trying too hard. Every clothing line builds their brand and brands are incomplete without an identity. What this identity is and what target group it adheres to is often based on class- be it inexpensive, affordable shopping or designer couture. 

“. . . it is considered the mark of a good house-elf that he or she does all the work but his/her existence is not even noticed.”

The garment industry is one of the most labour-intensive industries in the world because each garment needs to be cut and sewed, buttons stitched, fringes added, tugged and pulled before it is put under those blinding lights of a mall in urban India or anywhere in the first world. And these garments are mostly produced in the peripheries of the world, in sweat-shops with no space for ventilation and no time to stop moving the hands that would earn a dollar or two for a  whole day’s work. In India, the garment industry exploded in size after the 1991-92 liberalization process where contractors and dingy shop-floors popped up in nooks and corners of export-oriented centers like  Tiruppur, Gurgaon, NOIDA, Chennai, Bangalore, Okhla, and Jaipur. In post-liberalization India, because of the rise in the informalization of labour, it has been easier to flout government norms and regulation. 

“. . . ‘And Dobby gets a Galleon a week and one day off a month!’

‘That’s not very much!’ Hermione shouted indignantly. . .”

The fashion industry is oppressive and the nature of oppression is gendered because roughly 80% of the workers labouring in this industry are women. Women are much more vulnerable in the labour market because they lack the bargaining power to demand a higher wage than the dismal amount that is on offer. Also, women have no chance and socioeconomic capital to access education or skill-building opportunities in the third world and hence have to fall back to working in inhumane conditions to support their children and pay off rents and debts.

Since women also have less mobility than men, and the lack of specific facilities in the factory keep women from doing overtime, women are often hired by contractors to do home-based work. This is also how work gets divided between genders—men do cutting and fitting while women end up doing tailoring/stitching of the garment at their homes.

The problem with home-based work is even less regulation is than what is possible in the factories or shop floor and lesser contact with the management which leads to other problems like delays in payment and no compensation in case of any harm due to the assigned tailoring work. According to a recent finding, 95.5% of the home-based work is done by women.

According to the Oxfam 2019 report, 0% of Bangladeshi garment workers made a minimum living wage. Let that sink in—0%! According to the International Labour Organization report, over half the workers in garment factories had outstanding household debt. Because of the lack of skills and options, they are often stuck in garment factories, which have little to offer them. According to the same report, nine out of ten workers do not want their children to work in the garment industry, pointing out to the fact that they don’t see the industry holding anything worthwhile for their children. The report also states that “More than half of the workers sometimes or often think about leaving their factory or the garment industry altogether” but for most cases are unable to because, with such low incomes, the savings are non-existent for them to look for other employment options, resulting in them being stuck in the vicious cycle of poverty, which is, unfortunately, the only thing that their children inherit.

In India, the problem can be compounded due to other realities of one’s identity like caste and religion. According to a report by Blum Centre for Developing Economics, University of California, Berkeley, about 99.3% of workers in the home-based garment industry were either Muslims or from the marginalized Scheduled Caste. Scheduled caste and Muslims are especially stigmatized in the society and it is harder for them to find alternative jobs. Not only because they have not historically been deprived of access to resources, but also because work-spaces are not safe for them. Since they are seen as disposable in the society, any violation, sexual or otherwise is not taken seriously hence can be a reason why they settle for home-based work with lower wages. 

“They like it Hermione! They like the work!”

The rhetoric of choice is always used to justify a rather unfair and unequal system, and the garment industry is no different. The ideals of Feminism, especially that of ownership over self and choice are not to be looked at in isolation but as grounded in the present socio-political realities.

While the fashion industry in the West asks women to “choose” liberation and claim the public sphere in the clothing of their choice, the dimly lit factories go into a frenzy after every fashion week to meet the ever-growing demand, making the working conditions even worse than what they already are.

Ironically, yet unsurprisingly, the Moghuls of the fashion industry and the contractors of these factories are men. Women’s clothes, hence, are designed by men, not keeping comfort as a criteria, determined by the male gaze, showcased in venues owed by men, broadcasted by media houses and programmes produced by men, sold in stores owned by men, and, finally, quite obviously, the profits are also enjoyed by men—all shouldered by the labour of the women of the third world. 

The entire point of feminism is to broaden women’s choices. And no doubt it has–privileged women owe their opportunity-powered ability as a woman to read this article, or to sit in their offices working for a (relatively) just wage, to this movement that fought for and championed women’s right to education or work. It is because of the efforts of millions that some of us are not being treated as a mere means to an end–an end which would be determined by a man. So, it also makes absolute and ethical sense that freedom of a few is not treated as an end of someone else’s unjust labour. 

“It’s people like you, Ron, who prop up rotten and unjust systems, just because they’re too lazy to —”

The next time, when an advertisement compels the consumers to “be you” or “set yourself free”, that freedom to wear whatever you wish should not come at the cost of someone else’s slavery. While the present economy might make you believe that there are no alternatives possible, remember that the good thing about a free economy is that the production can be easily manipulated by changing consumer choices. If we, as responsible consumers question and hold the multinationals accountable for their apathy that goes into forcing women to work on unjust wages in poor standards of working conditions, we, by making this thoughtful “choice”, might be able to push for a revolution, which the fashion weeks see every season but the fashion industry doesn’t. This simple yet powerful act would help to free those poor women from the cages of bondage labour and let them taste a sense of freedom—both social and economical—that they stitch into our clothes at the expense of theirs. After all, the Muggle world does not (and should not) have elves. 

2020-10-30T08:21:45+00:00 October, 2020|Tags: , , , |0 Comments

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