“Dirty laundry” then and now: International Women’s Day and working conditions in the global textile industry

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An in-depth article by Dr Kate Frederick, Dr Sarah Carmichael, and Prof. Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk (Department of History). 

On March 8th – International Women’s Day (IWD) – people across the globe take to the streets, often holding signs emblazoned with the word equality, referring to gender inequality. If we consider one of the purported inspirations for today’s IWD – the early-twentieth-century fight for improved working conditions among female textile producers – an additional form of inequality comes to mind: contemporary global economic inequality and its implications for access to basic protections among vulnerable workers, many of them women.

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International Women's day

IWD was first observed by the United Nations on 8 March 1975, but the concept of an international day devoted to female solidarity and empowerment had developed gradually over the twentieth century. The idea was reportedly first championed by prominent international female socialists and has been linked to a series of strikes and marches organized by female textile laborers in New York City between 1908 and 1910, which some claim were inspired by similar demonstrations in 1857*.

worker safety

Female textile strikers in New York City, 1910 (Library of Congress)
Female textile strikers in New York City, 1910 (Library of Congress)

In November 1909, for example, thousands of female garment workers took to the streets, demanding higher wages, reasonable working hours, and better working conditions. Soon after, however, the city of New York would be rocked by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. On a Saturday afternoon in March 1911, passersby watched 146 people – mostly young female immigrants – jump to their deaths or burn when the eighth-floor factory caught fire. Exit doors had been locked to prevent worker theft. The very public nature of the tragedy brought disregard for worker safety into sharp relief, and by 1915 over 20 labor legislation laws had been passed in New York state. The decades that followed saw expansion of worker protection laws at the national level.

global textile centers

Over the course of the twentieth century, the global location of mechanized, factory-based textile production transferred from places like New York City in the “Global North” to places like Dhaka, Bangladesh in the “Global South.” The relocation of production has been partly driven by lower wages in the comparatively poorer Global South. In many contemporary global textile centers, vulnerable workers, both men and women, accept meager wages they cannot afford to lose, diminishing their bargaining power relative to employers. And in the context of intense global competition, employers have scrambled to keep costs low, often at the expense of laborers. Apart from low wages, working conditions are often abysmal, with small and badly maintained work spaces. Has the “race to the bottom” to the low-wage areas of the Global South slowed the development of workers’ protection that female textile laborers in the Global North demanded - and ultimately won - over a century ago?

Women work in a textile factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. Source: Wikimedia/Mona Mijthab
Women work in a textile factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. Source: Wikimedia/Mona Mijthab

rana plaza collapse

The conditions faced by textile workers today were thrown into stark relief by the Rana Plaza (or Savar building) collapse on the 24th of April 2013. Despite an evacuation the day before, due to cracks appearing in the building's walls, workers producing clothes for a number of big international brands were sent inside. Not long after, and in the space of no more than 90 seconds the whole structure collapsed, killing 1,134 people. This was a man-made disaster with echoes of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and a direct result of the demands of fast-fashion. Although the events at Rana Plaza resulted in greatly improved safety for Bangladeshi workers producing for major international brands, those working in smaller factories have seen fewer improvements (see The Guardian).

A recent report by Global Labour Justice links the pressures of production for such brands as H&M and GAP with physical and sexual abuse in the workplace.

undermining of worker's power

Besides the poor physical conditions of the factories workers are forced to work, the pooling of large numbers of women often in settings with little external oversight can give rise to a new set of ways in which workers’ power is undermined. A recent report by Global Labour Justice links the pressures of production for such brands as H&M and GAP with physical and sexual abuse in the workplace. These women do not always speak up for fear of retaliation on the factory floor, and they cannot afford to leave jobs which provide earnings that have lifted them, if just barely, out of poverty (more here).

economic position of women

In the contemporary soul-searching about consumption patterns in the “West,” fast-fashion is rightfully a topic receiving ever more attention. However the recent emphasis on the environmental impacts of fast-fashion production methods may be diverting attention from the abuses of those on the sharp end of the global market for cheap clothes. The fact that a large number of the employees in this sector are women and that we do not know enough about the conditions they work under and the amounts they earn ties in well with points addressed in Melinda and Bill Gates’ recent annual letter. The very data we collect, they argue, is sexist in the topics it omits, a deficiency that plays directly into poorly designed policy. The Gates’s suggest that changing the type of data we collect, as well as the way in which we collect it, may help empower women all over the world, by revealing hitherto invisible aspects of their economic position.

Textile factory © iStockphoto.com
Textile factory

race to the bottom

In the same vein, collecting and analyzing historical data on women’s position in the textile industry across the globe is exactly what we are currently doing in our recently started ERC-funded project “Race to the Bottom” at Utrecht University.

Clean clothes

Should you want to shift to buying “clean clothes,” please take a look at a number of initiatives that allow you to order online as portrayed in this article, or go to a shop in Utrecht or Amsterdam where you can look up the individual details of your tailor.


* Kaplan stresses the socialist origins of today’s International Women’s Day, focusing on the efforts of international socialists like Clara Zetkin. She also suggests that the original 1857 textile protest may have been a myth. See Temma Kaplan, “On the socialist origins of International Women’s Day,” Feminist Studies 11:1 (1985), pp. 163-171.