You can learn a lot about how our global capitalist economy came into being by tracking the production of one of our most basic commodities: cotton. By connecting growers, workers, traders, factory owners, and consumers in a supply and distribution network that reaches across the world, cotton has played an integral role in forging the efficient and ruthless structures of today’s globalized economy.
As the historian Sven Beckert explains in his book Empire of Cotton, over the course of the 1700s and 1800s, “enterprising entrepreneurs and powerful statesmen in Europe recast the world’s most significant manufacturing industry by combining imperial expansion and slave labor with new machines and wage workers.” Cotton became a springboard for industrial revolution, and for a global economy that favors limitless accumulation of capital.
Today, the pattern is well-known: Large corporations source their textiles from the cheapest factories possible. Factories in turn buy the cheapest cotton they can find. States compete with one another to prevent corporations from decamping to cheaper countries. “As a result,” Beckert writes, “the protections that strong nation-states offered, to at least some of their workers, for at least part of the twentieth century, have been gradually eroded.”
Most of the countries that rely on cotton and garment export commodities exhibit low indicators of socioeconomic development. West Africa’s Burkina Faso, a major exporter of cotton, for example, ranks 183 out of 188 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which measures average life expectancy, education, and income. Bangladesh, one of the world’s top garment exporters, ranks 142nd. But even more developed countries, like Romania, compete in the race to the bottom; in 2011, the country abolished collective bargaining at the national level, weakening unions’ ability to negotiate for fair pay and working conditions. The rock bottom wages and lack of worker protections in these countries allow for the production of strikingly cheap clothes. These are the faces and the stories of the people who make the shirts, jeans, and countless other items you use every day.
Paul Timbi Kobassare, Burkina Faso
Paul Timbi Kobassare’s family is large. A farmer, he has eight kids of his own and seven more who he is responsible for—his late brother’s children. With the exception of the youngest five, all attend school. “When they finish [school], they help us in the field,” he says.
Kobassare assumes that the profit he will make with cotton, once distributed over the year, will amount to a bit more than $1 a day. He also has two cows, six sheep, ten pigs, and about five acres of land where he grows corn, millet, and peanuts to feed his family. But cotton is the only crop that brings him cash.
Burkina Faso is Africa’s biggest grower and exporter of raw cotton, and the state supports the industry with loans, technical assistance, and seasonal price guarantees for cotton growers. Two hundred thousand farms, mostly small ones with fewer than 12 acres of land, produce between 400,000 to 700,000 tons of it each year. Directly or indirectly, 3 million people in the country depend on cotton—nearly a fifth of Burkina Faso’s population.
But the price of cotton is continuously dropping in the global market. In its June report on Burkina Faso, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pointed out that, due to these dropping prices, the country urgently needs a strategy to reduce the cotton industry’s reliance on the state. The IMF suggests Burkina Faso turn its attention to other agricultural products that would prove more economically viable. But what about people like Paul Timbi Kobassare?
Kobassare’s only alternative is working in a gold mine. There are 800 traditional mines scattered all over the country, and he could probably find work in one. Like other miners in Burkina Faso, Kobassare would have to travel from mine to mine in the hopes that he’d find a gold ore. Maybe he’d even go to neighboring countries. His work day could stretch from early morning till dusk, or from dusk till dawn, from Sunday to Sunday. He would rarely get to see his family.
“In a gold mine, everything depends on luck,” Kobassare says. “I could maybe earn 4 or 5 dollars a day. But cotton guarantees me one dollar a day.”
Anowara, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Anowara and her husband rent a walk-through room in Dhaka, Bangladesh. They both work in a nearby textile factory that employs 12,000 workers. Anowara’s workday is at least 10 hours long; when there are larger orders, it gets even longer. Because of this, her children live with her parents in a village in northeast Bangladesh, some 400 miles away. Together she and her husband make about $200 a month, but nearly all of that goes toward necessities.
Anowara and her husband have been in Dhaka for three years. Like so many other garment workers in Bangladesh, they moved to the city for opportunities. “Living in the countryside is easier, but only if you have money,” says Anowara. “There are no possibilities there to earn a living.”
Most of the workers in Bangladesh’s garment industry, the second largest in the world, are women. They make up to 90 percent of the country’s 3.6 million garment workers. Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed, assistant executive director of the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS), says that, like Anowara, most of the women come from rural areas where, traditionally, there was only one goal for girls—to marry.
“Girls, women didn’t even dare to think that they would ever cross the borders of their village. Now they go to Dhaka,” Ahmmed says. “They fight for survival, but also for their rights. Before, brothers would send them dresses for celebrations, now they are the ones who give money to their parents, take care of the schooling of their brothers.”
But Anowara wants to move back to the countryside. She dreams of saving enough money to buy a piece of land and start a farm. “My children have to finish school,” says Anowara. “I don’t want them to spend their lives behind a sewing machine, like I do.”
It’s not just their financial future that Anowara worries about—it’s their safety. In 2013, the Rana Plaza factory just outside of Dhaka collapsed, killing more than 1,130 textile workers and injuring some 2,500 more. It was the worst industrial accident in the history of the garment industry, and resulted in some modest reforms. More than 200 global brands signed onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which has improved conditions at the larger factories that operate under the agreement—at least when foreign mediators and buyers are present. Bangladesh also established a minimum wage, 5,300 taka per month—a little less than $67. But even that is too much for many of most popular Western brands. Some companies that have been in Bangladesh for decades are moving production to Ethiopia, which has lower wages.
Adriana Bleydea, Sibiu, Romania
Adriana Bleydea has worked in the same garment factory in Sibiu, Romania, for 35 years. Her mother worked there before her, back when it was a state-owned factory named Red Star and employed 6,000 people. It was privatized in 1991, and in 2006 sold to new owners. It is now called Sibdress, and 300 workers remain.
“We sew male suits of high quality,” Bleydea says. “A suit costs $390. You cannot buy it here—they are exported to Germany.”
Clean Clothes Campaign, an international alliance of trade unions and NGOs, calls Romania “Europe’s cheap sweatshop.” Their research shows that many garment works in Romania, like Bleydea, cannot reach the minimum wage without overtime.
“I don’t even know myself how I manage to get by the month,” Bleydea says. “I have no savings, I buy my food in the expired section. The clothes I wear are second hand, and my son who works in Germany buys me the medicine I need to take.”
Bleydea irons male trousers—700 pairs a day, five days each week. When she reaches this quota, she earns $230 a month. This does not meet Romania’s minimum wage of $298 a month, and it certainly does not amount to a living wage in a European country. She is forced to work overtime to meet the minimum wage and find ways to save.
“When I look at older tourists from the other European countries admiring my town,” Bleydea says. “I wonder what happened to our social system. Why did we allow…such a bad situation?”