Inside labour: Women’s Day belongs to the labour movement

2015-03-15 15:00

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This week began with International Women’s Day, so it’s a good time to look again at the global garment industry, as well as our own emaciated garment sector. Historically, female garment workers provided the impetus for the creation of this day.

It was also women in the same industry in St Petersburg in 1917 who triggered the Russian revolution when they celebrated International Women’s Day by rebelling against their appalling wages and conditions.

Although theday tends now to be claimed by feminists and ­elements of commercialism, it belongs tothe labour tradition and, specifically, to garment workers.This is an industry, more than a ­century after the 1911 launch of the first International Women’s Day, that is still staffed largely by women.

And it ­remains one of the most exploitative in the world. It also provides one of the best examples of what globalisation ­really means – and should be an antidote tothe patriotic prattling of politicians.International Women’s Day was ­established to commemorate a 1908 strike by garment workers in New York.

Only weeks after the first international demonstrations in 1911, the importance of theday was underlined by a fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in that city. The workers were locked in and 123 women and 23 men perished.This highlighted the demand of the­ ­International Women’s Day founders.

It was summed up by the Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai: “It matters not who is the ‘master’, a man or a woman.”This, as I have mentioned before, was a difference starkly illustrated in South Africa in 1930, when local campaigners won the vote for white women. At the same time, most supported the removal of the qualified franchise that then still applied for black men in the Cape.

Such specific divisions may not exist as widely today, but exploitation is just as rampant in our globalised world. A result is that South Africa’s garment ­industry is a mere shadow of its former self, having collapsed under a flood of mainly Chinese imports.

Our slightly better wages and conditions have made our products uncompetitive.But workers in China rallied: a series of strikes and protests saw the great garment boom in that country slow down. A number of Chinese-owned factories then relocated to countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar.

Retail organisations and global design companies followed suit, just as they had when they moved their production to China in the first place.These companies are compelled to do so by the competitive logic of an economic system that has scant regard for human welfare. Brand names and retailers chase the lowest possible prices of production, destroying lives and livelihoods in the process.

Even the global agreements signed in Bangladesh after the horrific 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza, which killed more than 1?000 garment workers, provide only a faint flicker of hope for meaningful, global change.Some governments, concerned about diminishing revenue, are now clamping down on worker militancy that may increase the cost of production and lose them cut-price contracts.

In Cambodia, for example, five unionists were shot down, although the minimum wage – after union pressure – rose in January to $128 (R1?580) a month from $100.The fall-off in orders in that country, one of the results of higher wages, has also meant less overtime pay, necessary for workers to earn a barely living wage.

Cambodian company owners now complain that the new basic wage is twice that in Bangladesh.In Myanmar, union leaders have been arrested following strikes at South ­Korean- and Chinese-owned factories. There, workers are demanding a wage of $78 a month.

This is the global reality the labour movement correctly categorises as “a race tothe bottom” – a situation of ­diminishing wages and worsening conditions. In fact, a situation not so different from what workers in 1911 endured.

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