Sewing Power

Sewing Power: Labor Rights in the Garment Industry in South Asia
Conference/Symposium | April 4 | 1-3:30 p.m. | Stephens Hall, 10 (ISAS Conference Room)

A summary of the lecture
by Sridevi Prasad, ISAS Program & Publications Assistant

In the space provided by the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies at UC Berkeley, three scholars specializing in various regions across South Asia came together to attend our conference titled “Sewing Power: Labor Rights in the Garment Industry in South Asia”. Moderated by Sanchita Saxena, Director of the Chowdhury Center and author of Made in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Sri Lanka: The Labor Behind the Global Garments and Textiles Industries, the symposium sought to provide a comparative analysis of the labor rights in the garment industries in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.

Faisal Siddiqi, human rights lawyer from Pakistan, spoke on a fire that occurred in a garment factory fire in the Baldia area of Karachi and killed 255 people in 2012. Contrasting it to the historical Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 New York, Siddiqi argued that the Baldia fire did not produce a strong societal response or government action. Arguing that Pakistan needs a stronger labor movement, Siddiqi maintained that the state must remain central in this struggle as it is the only entity that can enforce basic labor rights. On an alternative side of development, Sri Lanka, as discussed by Dr. Kanchana Ruwanpura from the University of Edinburgh, is fortunate to have a highly educated labor force with strong labor rights. Most labor codes such as zero tolerance for child labor and the right to the choice of employement were found to be upheld but codes seeking to provide a living wage or the freedom to form an alliance and collective bargaining were frequently violated. Here too, Ruwanpura argued that the state is complicit and needs to provide the right to freedom of association and the lack of a living wage. Chaumtoli Huq, the final speaker and a human rights lawyer from New York, spoke about the power of workers’ movements in the garment industry in Bangladesh, especially post-Rana Plaza. Showing clips from her upcoming documentary, Huq argued that Bangladeshi factory workers, who are predominantly women, are organizing to fight for their rights not only as workers but as women and citizens as well. Recognizing the intersectional nature of their identity, these women are empowering themselves to push the state and multinational corporations to recognize their rights as Bangladeshi female garment workers.

Following the panel was a screening of the newly released documentary, The True Cost. Directed by Andrew Morgan, the documentary showed the role of “fast fashion” and materialism on agricultural and garment workers in the Global South. The documentary calls on consumers to recognize their role in this exploitative supply chain and empowers them to push global fashion brands to change their practices and the business model that allows them to violently profit off of cheap labor in the Global South.

Videorecording of the lecture