Tuesday 29 April 2008

"Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts"

The night before last I caught up with the first episode on BBC's iPlayer - last night at 9pm was the second of this reality TV program that takes 6 young fashionistas out of their cosy existences in the UK and plants them for 6 episodes covering 6 weeks into various clothes production plants in New Dehli, India.

We did not find out too much about the lives of the Indian workers and what they think of their lot but we did hear from owners and managers of the factories and the families in the homes in which they work.

The first factory produced clothes for M&S, Zara etc. It was bright, clean, HUGE - state of the art for India apparently. The workers were paid by the hour but clearly were expected to work hard (no chatting!) in a mind numbingly boring environment in which they were each one part of a production line for a garment. I was not clear how long the working day was but it was a lot longer than the 7 hours most of us enjoy in the UK.

The pay? About £1.20 per day. Now you may say, everything's cheaper in India. Well, some things are cheaper in India but our young participants found that buying a can of antiperspirant will cost that day's wages. Now I don't think I would quite class that factory as a sweatshop but clearly you can't afford to sweat....

(It was not actually antiperspirant - my invention - that was being bought but something equally basic to us in the West and very similar in cost).

The group then encountered another way to afford a can of antiperspirant - work in a small back street factory producing 'fashion' clothing. Here there is no production line; you produce a whole garment and get paid piece rate. At approximately 15p per garment you have to produce 8 to buy that anti-antiperspirant. Here the workers might normally turn in 18 hour days in order to make what they can at the piece work rate.

Of course these programmes were being filmed in establishments where permission had been given to film. Who know what lies beyond?

The trouble with programmes like this is that they play on the temper tantrums of the young participants to add some drama while the diligent work of the Indian's making these clothes for us largely goes unnoticed. But the point should get across to the young BBC3 audience.

I suppose I should not get uptight about what I describe as a "mind numbingly boring environment". It's what many of our western ancestors used to work in after the industrial revolution, after they moved away from working on the land. And the standard of living is probably better than our own industrial revolution ancestors too - they did not have antiperspirant either.

But what grates, and what we all should remember, is that our relatively lazy lifestyle and spare time to enjoy a service industry culture is based on the toil of the people who make our 'things' for us. Which is why we should give a little thanks in return next time we buy a t-shirt by being careful about what we choose.

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