Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Blood Sweat and T-Shirts -- BBC Three

Sadly I only learned about this programme a few hours before the first episode was aired, and so did not have time to flag this up on my other websites.

What can I say? The factory scenes brought back vivid memories of my own stints in garment factories.

Between my O and A Levels I found a 'finishing' job in a garment factory. That made me the lowest of the low in the hierarchy, short of the tea lady. So when the tea lady was not around, the supervisor made me serve tea to visitors. The rest of my time was spent cutting the loose ends of thread, ironing the finished products, folding, packing, and so on.

My most painful memory at this factory was the tea lady hovering around the office, refusing to go home, waiting for the boss to come back to the factory to hand out that week's wages. The boss had left the factory earlier on for a meeting. She didn't come back that evening and we never got paid. The tea lady moaned that she didn't have the money to pay her children's school fees.

I returned to a garment factory when doing my postgraduate research. I swopped the meagre wages of a university tutor ($65 an hour) for the handsome reward of $9 a day for eight hours at the factory.

We were paid 1.5 our wages on overtime between 6 and 9pm and twice our wages after 9pm or something like that. I stood all day packing clothes, after I had checked their sizes and put on the correct tags.

My most painful memory here is ... pain. Excruciating pain in my feet shooting up to my knees. Taking my feet off the ground did not alleviate the pain. One just had to endure it. Day after day after day.

Otherwise this wasn't such a bad place to work in. The women were generally good-natured, but they had to work really, really hard. The supervisor worked her way up and had a way with people. She had the most uncanny ability of estimating how much time we needed to finish each consignment. For that I take my hat off to her.

But the tedium, the noise, the dust, O, it was dire. The air was also a bit blue with the jokes that these women shouted across to one another. At least, unlike the workers in the Indian factory, these women were able to joke.

Of course after my four weeks of such participant observation I could (and did) retreat to the safe confines of my ivory tower at the university. And there I spoke of my counter-culture shock. University seemed so surreal after my four weeks on the factory floor. (It was this experience that convinced me that I had to get out of this university as soon as I could.)

My friends at the factory -- they didn't have the choice.

The six young people featured in this programme could, like me, withdraw from the factory. But not the workers.

I was a bit surprised (naive) that these young people seemed so naive (surprised) about what real working conditions in factories are like. But then I do come from a working-class background. It was educational, watching their excitable faces turn forlorn as they travelled in a taxi from the airport to where they were desposited.

Hands on their noses, they communicated well the stench coming from the piles of rubbish and stagnant waterways they had to walk past. Hey! Welcome to the real world.

This was what I found most difficult when on a short work stint to Jakarta I saw the rich businessmen in their expensive chauffeured cars living and working in expensive buildings and yet across the road from them there could be a stinking canal on which some people lived. (I must confess that we the foreign consultants to a bank continued to walk glibly past this lot in our designer clothes and briefcases without nary a glance at these people. I think we were embarrassed.)

But these rich businessmen in their own country, would they -- did they -- do anything to help clean up this area? Answer on a postcard please.

More information on the programme here.

Back to Organic-Ally.

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