A social startup and a labor innovation lab, with many projects being run in the garment industry, we take a moment to go back and learn about its rich history.
The garment industry today employs over 75 million people worldwide. That’s more than the population of the United Kingdom. In countries like India, Bangladesh, and China where most of the manufacturing happens, majority of the front line workers are women. In Bangladesh, just in the last two decades, this industry drove growth in female labor force participation and indirectly led to improvements in female education and a decline in female fertility. Basically, serving as an engine for holistic development.
But how did the garment industry get here and what’s in store for countries like India? Let’s go back to history for some answers (or more questions)!
In the 1700s, India’s largest manufacturing industry was textiles, organized primarily as a cottage industry. At that time it was heavily dependent on labor and produced a fourth of the world’s total output, clothing people in Europe. The dominant model in other places was that of small, localized production too. Ready-to-wear, mass-produced garments weren’t even a thing yet.
The whole game changed with the advent of technology. Spinning Jenny, a newly invented British machine of the 18th century, multiplied the capacity of a single worker to spin thread by more than eight-fold. Following closely, the 19th century brought with it the steam engine. This, combined with better modes of transportation, the invention of the sewing machine, and power looms set the stage for a mechanized textile industry, producing clothes at a mass level.
So, just in the course of one century, clothing production shifted from cottage industries to large mills and factories, from a localized model to a mass production one. The lack of physical proximity to these inventions meant that more and more production sailed away from the Indian subcontinent, ironically through the Indian Ocean.
This shift coincided with the industrial revolution in England, creating the working class and changing the very nature of society. By the early 20th century, this story spilled over to other “developed” economies like the United States. But the factories where these ready-to-wear garments were being produced had poor working conditions, low job quality, and low wages for workers.
Enter the late 20th century. A lot of changes took place — synthetic fibers, the free flow of labor, and abundance of knowledge sharing — just to name a few. Clothing brands responded to this change by remapping supply chains in search of cheap labor — because in a free, connected world, they could.
Fast forward to the present — the largest apparel exporting countries today are China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and India with trade value running into hundreds of billions of dollars. The apparel industry has been one of the first manufacturing industries to develop at scale in this part of the world — an easy move out of poverty and low-productivity agricultural work for many.
On the face of it, one can argue that not much has changed. But digging a bit deeper reveals how brands and suppliers today are more conscious of working conditions.
The industrial revolution came with jobs on dingy factory floors and unsafe working conditions. It was not uncommon for workers to labor for 16 hours at a stretch. Contrast this with today’s compliance regulations in garment factories which mandate overtime pay by double the minimum wage for over eight hours of work in a day, in India.
When it came to wages, workers were grossly underpaid — the low calorific, skimpy diets during this period that have made it to novels as folklore, were indeed a reality. Today, there are national and international standards around minimum wages and more attention to workers’ health. We at GBL also want to lead widespread discussions around living wages, a concept to ensure a decent standard of living, which the minimum wage doesn’t necessarily guarantee in several countries.
Another area we work on is unlocking female labor. The industrial revolution saw the rise of the male workforce. Men were still the primary breadwinners until World War II when women were forced to step up in their absence. This opportunity exposed the potential of female labor as a force to reckon with.
So that we learn from it. The path forward looks tricky but we can all work together to ensure working conditions today are better than what they were during the industrial revolution. We can redefine the future of work for garment workers. All this to make sure that when someone looks back at our time of history 100 years from now, they can draw some valuable lessons too!
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