one hundred years without progress (performance) 2021-2022
A number of years a go I became enraged listening to a public radio news commentary program describing the output of garment workers as “unskilled labour”. The commentator likely meant well, but had he ever taken the time to inspect his collar and cuffs and contemplate the exquisite dexterity that went into the production of his shirt?
The kind of bias that allows us to admire the skill of a radio host (while he manifestly misunderstands the premise of his argument) while discounting the acute abilities of a garment worker can only be informed by a history of colonization, war capitalism, state capitalism and racism.
The sewing machine, particularly the classic black “Singer”, is an exemplar of the machine era. It is beautiful, substantial and functionally marvelous but its presence, influence and history is not benign. The mechanization of the textile industry concentrated labour, transforming the subsistence agrarian populations on many continents into a landless proletariat, leading to exploitation coerced labour, enslavement and the transportation of enslaved people.
The industrialists in the heat of the Industrial Revolution understood that due to technological advancement, their machines would be redundant in as little as three years. In order to justify their investment, they would have to run their machines day and night, which led to 24-hour shift work (which is in itself inhumane), the labour shortage that ensued, precipitated an explosion in child labour in Europe as well as fostering the dehumanizing notion that people are inferior to capital.
A notable illustration of this devaluation of human life was the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, New York City’s deadliest industrial disaster claiming the lives of 146 garment workers, mostly recent immigrants between ages 16-23, many of whom jumped to their deaths because the exits were locked to prevent theft and unauthorized breaks.
In Bangladesh in 2013, Rana Plaza collapsed, killing 1134 garment workers. The building had been declared unsafe. Banks and stores in the plaza were closed, but the 5000 garment workers were threatened with termination if the did not show up for work.
As consumers, we are at least culpable in this continuing tragedy