In the glory days of the North-West’s manufacturing era, Derry and Donegal were virtually bursting at the seams with shirt factories, with up to 5,000 people being employed at any one time.
But pay was extremely poor with many workers having to live in slum conditions without the right to sick pay or benefits. Thanks to local union leaders such as the late Stephen McGonagle, pay rates were raised to international standards and people could at last afford a decent living.
Surely this means that those of us from the North-West are in a prime position to support our beleaguered friends from overseas – or are we?
Derry filmmaker, Eilis Ni hEadain is spending her Christmas in Bangladesh to find out what we can do for the women who work in appalling conditions there so that we can buy cheap. What wisdom we can offer. What can we learn from their bravey?
Imagine the things you least want to experience over the Christmas holiday...
Family fights over the remote; your car (full of kids) broken down in a rainstorm while you wait for the AA guy; feeling like you need another type of AA after the vodka-ridden Xmas party that leaves you ducking under the desk every time your boss comes by; listening to the ear-piercingly high-pitched screams of toddlers as they plummet through your home in a clashing cacophony of beeping consoles….
Or (even worse) eating turkey-for-one in a draughty bedsit with no one to snuggle up to during the endless barrage of soaps. . .!
Well, another option is to be stuck at work on a ninteen-hour shift with a weekly brown envelope containing the equivalent of just £6 to look forward to.
For those of us in the North West lucky enough to be in gainful employment, we struggle on an average of £500 weekly (though most of us don’t get near that mark).
Those of us between jobs live on a measly £65 plus rent allowance.
Bangladeshi workers have recently been promised a pay rise of around £4 but even that gives them £55 less than we get on the dole.
Added to this is the problem of flagrant disregard for the safety of these workers - many of us remember the factory collapse in April that killed 1,100.
“Ok”, you might say, ‘safety standards are a problem but with regard to wages, well there is a mammoth gap between the cost of living here and in the depths of Asia.”
But what exactly does this mean? In today’s world 32% of Bangladeshi people live below the poverty line, the meridian age is 24, and their infant mortality rate is ten times higher that of the UK.
Add this to the fact that every day, three million children are sent out to work so that their families can survive, and the picture of contented Asians leading simple, rat-race-free lives soon fades away.
The question here is why should we care?
Bangladesh is 5,000 odd miles away and we have enough of our own problems what with the recession. God forbid the prices in shops such as Next, Primark and Debenhams should go up.
The good news is that we would barely notice the difference.
Emma Harbor from The Clean Clothes Campaign (Source – International Labour Organization), says we would only have to pay an extra one euro per 20 euro item so that workers could be guaranteed proper pay and conditions (as we know, this means food and education for their families, not widescreen TVs and 4 star weekends.
Before I left, accompanied by two young American Interns, I collected messages, opinions and questions, which I will bring on my journey from Derry to Dhaka.
As we stand in the freezing cold outside Primark, Eilish, whose mother used to work in a factory on the Carisle Road, calls on Bangladeshis to stand up for their rights.
“You deserve to have your fair share.” she asserts.
Her friend Noleen adds: “Of course there is always that fear of losing your job if you speak out but if you have a union or someone to represent you, then it’s not so risky.”
Owen McGonagle, artist and son of Stephen, the late Senator and union leader, tells me in an interview that the key to his father’s success lay not so much in protest as in negotiation.
“My father understood that you have to work with people in order to turn things around. Driving people away solves nothing.”
But local economist Dr. Pauline McClenaghan (who once worked in the sales office of Ben Sherman) tells us that while negotiation and unions are invaluable, things have changed, and better working conditions are difficult to implement. Business owners are no longer the fathers and sons holed up in the office above the factory floor - they are faceless shareholders, dispersed across the globe with little inkling of the conditions of those whose blood sweat and tears keep the cycle of profit and greed in motion.
Clare, whom I spoke to on the streets of Derry, worries: “What if people negotiate themselves out of a job? What if the factories move?”
The fact is that Bangladesh might be the last port of call for manufacturers, as (bar Myanmar) workers there are the lowest paid in Asia.
But Clare’s concerns are still widespread. After all, did Derry and Donegal not lose most of their factories shortly after we obtained full rights?
A group of UK MPs think they might have found the answer. They have suggested kitemarking for all goods bought in from Bangladesh and surely this is something which we could insist upon across Europe. This system could be developed so that products would not only conform to high production standards but that factories from which products are bought have to meet basic human rights criteria and equality of pay.
Meantime what can we do to help and what is it that our friends over there want?
My challenge over the next few weeks is to answer these questions. Thanks to those of you who passed on your comments and words of support.