Stretched at the Seams
I couldn’t tell you how many times I had stood in front of the mirror in the hallway, staring at my burgeoning bump. With each passing month came a new worry, a new hope, and a new image of the future burning brightly before me. With each passing month, the mixture of cotton, polyester and elastane in my t-shirt stretched further. While I did wear maternity clothes, this was my top of choice when it came to throwing into sharp relief both my changing body and my changing life. It grew with me and then bounced back into shape with me, albeit with added give (rather like my post-baby tummy). Now, with my baby bump long gone and my toes clearly visible again, I wear it still.
My trusty sky-blue tee typifies my entire fashion sense: simple, modest, and comfortable. I can’t really remember when I bought it except that it was at least five years go. I expect it cost no more than £10 and I probably didn’t put too much thought into buying it. Again, this typifies my approach to clothes shopping: get in and get out as fast as possible. In that sense, I am the embodiment of fast fashion.
What is the human story behind my trusty blue tee? With the supply chain in the garment industry being complex and convoluted, it was difficult to trace the hands that my t-shirt had passed through. Where did my t-shirt’s journey begin? The label states that it was ‘Made in Bangladesh’, one of the main hubs of the garment factory industry. But this is not the whole story. Tesco, where I purchased this t-shirt, could neither confirm nor deny the source of the cotton in my t-shirt since they didn't reply to my communications, but it's likely that it could have come from India, one of the world’s major suppliers of cotton.
My t-shirt’s probable journey begun, then, with raw grey-white cotton pods rooted in the sun-baked earth of India’s cotton fields. Based in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat, Kavita, aged three, and Gojya, aged four, toddle about in the dirt while their mother, Shankar, picks the cotton and throws it into a sack weighing down her back. She is joined by her other children, six-year old Dungar Singh, eight-year-old Madhav, and twelve-year-old Kamlesh Singh. Most of the workers around them are women like Shankar trying to provide for their families. The children dropped out of school under pressure to help earn the meagre income that comes with being the hands and feet of a thriving cotton industry. “I am forced to do this…I have to do this in order for the family to survive”, says Kamlesh sitting for a brief moment in the punishing heat of the day. When the working day is over, the family gather around a simple stove cooking millet porridge and some vegetables, and then sleep on the bare floor amid the incessant buzz of mosquitoes. They have been doing this for seven or eight months of the year.
For those working on the cotton fields, like Shankar and her family, ill health is part and parcel of the package. It’s not just the back-breaking toil, long hours in intense sun exposure and dust, and the far from salubrious living conditions, it’s also near constant exposure to pesticides. Empty containers of pesticides are frequently used for carrying water despite laws to the contrary. They are in the air they inhale, the water they drink from and on their very skin from contact with the cotton buds. Headache, skin irritation, dizziness, nausea, blisters, stomach pain and fever are common occurrence. Nevertheless, the work continues as relentlessly as the sun beats down on their backs.
The cotton has changed considerably by the time it arrives in the form of pieces of fabric to be sewed together under the glare of fluorescent strip lights and the hum of machines in the Bangladeshi factory where women like Arifa work. She sits at her hard wooden chair to the chagrin of her aching back, breathing through the pain in the thick, stale air. Married with three children: two sons and one daughter, Arifa works an average of 13-14 hours per day earning 2200 taka a month. Her family spends around 5000 taka on health, rent and food each month. When she finishes an arduous day at work, she returns home to take care of the children and manage household chores. Then there is Lina, who began working at a garment factory in Dhaka when she was 13. Having been promoted to sewing machine operator, she can expect to earn £17 a month, providing she works between 60-90 hours per week. The garment factory supplies major high street retailers, including Tesco.
Tesco maintain their commitment to ethical sourcing and standards, adhering to the Bangladesh Accord, a legally binding agreement between two global trade unions and over 200 international brands and retailers designed to improve structural, fire and electrical safety across the Bangladesh garment industry. They are also part of the Ethical Trading Initiative, and publish a list of factories that they use. But while this sounds a higher and more noble note than before, the progress that has been made is not far reaching enough for the many vulnerable children and young women who work gruelling shifts in the clothing supply chain.
In times of nostalgia, I think back to that hallway mirror again where I stood for the briefest of moments, my hands resting atop an ever expanding bump, feeling the soft yet taut fabric of my trusty blue tee. Now, when I wear this t-shirt, I think also of hands weathered from the sun such as Shankar’s, picking its cotton, then heaving sacks of it to and fro, and stroking the cheeks of worn out children as they rest for the coming day’s work. I think of hands like Arifa, stitching the seams of a t-shirt which my hands would eventually rest on as a baby grew within, my hopes and dreams for that life blossoming as the weeks unfurled. It is quite possible that Arifa still sits at her sewing machine, dreaming of a better life, with a job that would really provide for her children.
The thread that connects our very different lives is one of hope for new life.
Surely, out of the detritus of the Rana Plaza factory collapse of April 2013, where at least 1,000 factory workers lost their lives, that is what we can build together.