Not Dressed For Conquering 01: Fires (2018)

Not Dressed For Conquering 01: Fires.

For the catalogue of the exhibition All Men Become Sisters.  Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz, Poland who wanted American spelling. It was written with Ines Doujak and relates to the work on Fires in the Collaboration section, but with a much greater emphasis on women as resisting victims. 

John Barker, Ines Doujak

“They are not Machines”, shouted Chun Tae-il in 1971 when he set fire to himself in the Dongdaemun area of Seoul in protest at the conditions of women workers in its textile and clothing factories. It was left to his extraordinary mother Han Soon-nim and other courageous women to fight for independent union representation. They fought not just the super-exploitation of the Korean economic ‘miracle’; the repression of the dictatorship which claimed it; and against the patriarchy that was essential to that exploitation. It was patriarchy in its crudest form as when women unionists were smeared with male shit by foremen and company thugs.

In the work we have done over the last few years we have seen repeatedly that women workers in the industry were both victims and also likely to be actors in their own right and against their victimized position. The modern-day international division of labor in both textile and the clothing (garment) industries carry the dirty footprints of both colonialism and patriarchy. Both are integral to the perpetuation of low wage economies and the super-exploitation then furthered by competition amongst them, ‘the race to the bottom’. While celebrating the organizing and several victories of textile workers, we are especially aware that these take place within these parameters.

These parameters were most cruelly displayed in the repeated incidents of mass deaths of workers in textile factory fires from around 1990. These fires had similar features in one respect: as had been the case in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City in 1911, doors were locked and windows barred by the owners believing that otherwise there would be theft. 146 people died. 123 of these were women, who died despite instances of truly selfless heroism. There are now regulations and checks, which are supposed to prevent this happening, but it appeared that in one case after another especially in Bangladesh the lowest wage producer, these had not been enforced and that checks were simply a PR exercise. In the modern era there was an additional common factor, the overloading of electrical systems in factories, resulting in short-circuits and incendiary sparks. The basic infrastructure and the workers themselves were overloaded by contracts imposed by Western clothes-labels and accepted by local factory owners in this race to the bottom.

In our contribution to the exhibition All Men Become Sisters we focused on such cases and used various media: two printed cloths; shirts made from these cloths; printed hand-outs sewn together; a filmed performance piece; and the dressed sculpture of a looter. That the theme should be printed on cloth was to keep the materiality of what was being produced in mind. The images were not ‘floating signifiers’. One showed burning sewing machines as personal accounts referred in some cases to their being red-hot and so impossible to use in order to smash bars and windows for escape. In the texts we described how, for example, on December14th,2010, “Despite one tragedy after another in Bangladesh, and just one week after a ‘multi-stakeholder’ conference on the very theme of fire safety in the country, a fire breaks out in the finishing department on the ninth floor of the ten-floor ‘That’s It Sportswear’ factory, part of the Ha-Meem group. An electrical short-circuit and the sparks it produced is blamed. 24 workers were killed, many more terribly injured or missing. Workers on the upper floors jumped as emergency exit doors were locked, and if it had not been at lunchtime many more would have been locked in to die. The factory supplies GAP, Tommy Hilfiger and JC Penney amongst others. GAP says sorry.”

In 2012 the worst ever such fire took place at Ali Enterprises in Karachi just after the factory had received a safety certificate from Social Accountability International. 287 people were killed and many more badly injured. It may be that the fire was started deliberately (after six years a trial is only now taking place) but it was again locked doors and barred windows that led to so many deaths. This was soon followed by an even greater number of deaths at the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh when the vibration of too large a number of  sewing machines for the structure of a building caused some one thousand deaths. Since then, when Western labels were confronted for the first time with seriously bad publicity, there have been fires but none causing death and injury on such a scale.

A few months after the Karachi fire we made an angry performance piece in London which was also filmed there. Two women, each in a single leg of the same huge pair of jeans made by the KiK (literally ‘The Consumer Is King’) company, for whom the factory destroyed in the Karachi fire was producing, spoke of their deaths in both the Karachi fire and that in 1912 New York, while the heroism of the rescuers was celebrated. The glib apologies and attempts to dodge responsibility by both the factory owners and KiK were then skewered in performance. In Pakistan artists were raising awareness and giving support to survivors and the dependents of those who died, as were trade unionists in the country. In the course of this  dependent families transformed themselves from being just victims into organizing against the KiK company and, at the end of 2016, winning a compensation claim against it in a German court, and in doing so created an important precedent. For the first time a European court ruled against a European company on behalf of workers and their dependents in a non-European country.

The other printed cloth was more metaphorical but firmly rooted in the substance of the theme: Prometheus, who brought fire to the world and was chained to a rock for his pains, falls through the sky through skyscrapers and chains. His figure, seen as both the liberator and the chained proletarian of the Industrial Revolution, enabled us to look further at the victim-agency axis. Originally it focused on the reality of ‘burn-out’, which in mainstream sociological reporting has been regarded as a phenomenon of the ‘creative’ and ‘professional’ classes. In the hand-out we produced evidence of the short working lives of sewing machinists. Even though the ability to work at high speed is a skill in itself it is not recognized as such in terms of wages so that  a machinist in a Mexican maquiladora (sweatshop) would not be able to buy one of the top-range jeans she is sewing. Pressure for high-speed work has been increased by comprehensive computerized quality-checking of the work of individual workers, and exacerbated by enforced overtime. Overload and burn-out showed that in many instances women workers were, in effect, machines.

The chains in one of the cloths also made reference to the working of the international division of labor, being described as global ‘production chains’ which involve producers at all stages in the making of the finished article. These chains extend into the ‘black economy’, whereby even in a factory the size of that in Karachi large numbers of workers are unregistered. In the course of this a new profession, that of ‘sourcing’, has developed, pioneered by the Hong Kong-based firm of Li& Feng. These professionals will ‘manage’ the production process for a label whereby the cloth for a shirt maybe contracted in one place, the pattern-cutting in another, and the sewing somewhere else; even button-holes may be made in yet another location. The reliability of factories is a consideration but price is always the primary concern. The squeeze on price involved is invariably passed on to workers by means of increased quotas or involuntary overtime. Sourcing has become so sophisticated that there is a range of devoted software-packages for it.

The final element in the display was the sculpted figure of a looter who is escaping with four of the shirts made from the printed cloth. In our work on cloth we found that there is a division of concern between what might be called production and consumption of cloth, on the one hand investigations by academics like Jane Collins and Edna Bonacich[1], and by concerned NGOs into the real processes of exploitation; and its semiotics by historians of fashion ,on the other. Such a division has consequences: some concerned with labor conditions tend to talk of ‘consumerism’ in a moralizing manner, while a focus on fashion is liable to disguise its real processes of production. The consumerist accusation tends to be aimed at poorer people, especially women, and this has a history. In writing a polemic to defend England’s wool industry, Daniel Defoe singled out female domestic servants as unpatriotic if they wore anything else. It was non-white women who, in colonial Latin America, were punished for wearing clothes ‘above their station’, just as they had been in Scotland in the 1560s, and in 19th century Africa, where they were punished by missionaries for wearing crinoline.

But in consumption too, women’s ‘agency’ also has a history. It was two slave women in 18th century Quito, Ecuador working for a court judge who tore down an edict demanding a stop to a ‘scandalous excess’ of the clothes worn by the non-white population. While in North America, African women used the indigo they were picking to brighten the cheap colorless cloth they were given to such an extent that in 1744 a grand jury in South Carolina complained, “Negro women in particular do not restrain themselves in their Clothing as the Law requires but dress in Apparel quite gay and beyond their condition.” This was a constant colonial complaint: in 17th century Brazil the colonial authorities were concerned with the “superfluity of elegance used in the dress of female slaves of the state”. The continuity of rebellion by dress in the Americas, as with the Zoot Suit riots in 1940s USA, made the figure of the looter of clothes give life to that history.


The work shown in Łódź, which itself was such an important center of textile production, was the first ‘chapter’ of a series ‘Not Dressed for Conquering’, in which the production of printed cloth and of clothes fashioned from it focused on themes as varied as Carnival, Transport, racism and work in the figure of the Ape. Our concern with cloth, which had originated with a collection of Andean textiles, continued however in the form of Loomshuttles Warpaths: An Eccentric Archive, published in January 2018 and giving accounts of worldwide worker struggles in the cloth and clothing industries over the last 700 years, and the colonial history of cloths and dyes. In the process we went into more depth in thinking of women workers as both victims and agents.

The ‘breadwinner’ ideology has the longest history as a rationalization for unequal pay between men and women, and is rooted in patriarchal household textile production and a gendered division of labor. Such household work continued and still continues in the industrialized era, as does the ideology that went and continues to go with it. This has been the case despite the existence of women-headed households and technological changes that have at times ‘re-feminized’ the workforce, as with the introduction of ring and throstle spinning, but which did not change the hierarchy of labor. In the 19th century Lancashire model for the cotton-cloth industry, men continued to operate the weaving machines and to work as self-actor-independent spinners and were paid more, and it was this model that was exported, along with both the cloth and the machinery itself. Even when women also became weavers in Lancashire and “in theory received equal rates, males were assigned cloth types that brought higher rates of pay”.[2] In Russia in the 1880s mechanization changed nothing, nor did the fact that some of the work done by women was the most physically demanding, such as wool cleaning, and skillful, such as warping.“It was a given in Russian culture … that women should always receive less pay, and employers took advantage of new technologies to switch from male to lower paid female labor.”[3] The institutionalizing of piece rates made it easier to manipulate rates of pay there and also in China where, in the 1930s, it was applied only to women workers while men were paid on an hourly basis. Most of all women workers “were paid less because they were supposed to be low-skilled, but at the same time work could be considered low-skilled and thus low-paid simply because it was performed by women”[4].[5] This is not just a Catch-22 from the past, for in the 1960s the Danish textiles trade paper Stofog Saks could declare that women were paid less because they were less qualified, which can be “attributed to a general lack of interest in technical matters among women”. In the clothing industry the same hierarchies apply. The cutting of cloth is a male preserve (though increasingly automated), as is the disciplining role of the foreman. Those same foremen who covered organized women workers with their own shit in 1970s Korea.

This ‘breadwinner’ ideology came to the fore in the 1968 strike by women sewing machinists at the Ford Motor plant at Dagenham, London, celebrated in the feature film Made in Dagenham. The strike was supported by some male fellow-workers and opposed by others when it was discovered that without their work sewing car-seat covers, production at the whole factory came to a halt, and also because it was a strike specifically about recognition of skill, so that reference was made to women working only for ‘pin money’. The demand was to be treated and rewarded the same as men doing jobs requiring a similar level of skill. A wage increase was won but not the skills demand, but some years later such a demand was won by other women sewing-machinists at Halewood, Liverpool, which indicates the importance of the history and memory of earlier struggles.


The strike came as shock to the Ford Company’s management hard-men because of the ingrained assumption that women were ‘docile’. “For talking in working hours … the penalty was the sack”, wrote Sam Dreen of London’s East End sweatshops in the 1900s.[6] In Spanish textile factories in the same period such silence was imposed only on women workers, while men were allowed to talk and sing. Speaking of a preference for women workers, a present day clothes factor owner in India talked of “men who talk too much, disturb everyone and have tough friends”. Where such ‘docility’ is not taken for granted it is imposed as in 1970s Korea and in modern Mexican factories where women are constantly subject to verbal abuse and sexual harassment. In the pre-industrial age in Europe women spinners, especially those working together were seen as undisciplined and equated with prostitutes.


These then are some of the parameters against which women have taken action. Very often they have confounded the expectation of docility as in the case of the successful strike by Japanese mill-workers in 1954 at the Omi Kenshi Spinning Company. This was at a time when Japan was the world’s biggest producer and exporter of cotton cloth, the basis of its economic ‘miracle’. The women were young and from rural areas and regarded as especially obedient, while the company was especially authoritarian: it held monthly conferences to select and fire workers who were sick or otherwise unable to work hard enough; had a comprehensive system of surveillance which included the opening of personal letters and the searching of personal possessions; enforced unpaid overtime; imposed Japanese state Shintoism as the company religion; controlled the non-working hours of employees; and would not recognize the trade union. The workers surprised everyone because the media had characterized  the action as a ‘caramel’ strike over pocket-money. Women marched with placards in front of the company’s buildings, and they held out for 106 days to win the freedoms they had demanded, and also gained approval of the new union, overtime pay, and paid vacations. It prompted strikes on other companies and an explosion of trade union membership. At other times the militancy of women shocked their male co-workers as in the Barcelona textile strike of 1913when women cut off the hair of strike-breaking other women and sold it to help finance the soup-kitchens they ran in order to keep the strike going.


Their actions have had a political edge. This was how it was in May 1905 in Russia just four months after the notorious St. Petersburg massacre by Tsarist forces when a strike started in the Ivanova “Cottonopolis”. Women had become predominant in factories since the introduction of the power-loom, and demands included shorter hours, better minimum pay, paid maternity leave, factory nurseries and freedom of association. As was to be the case in 1913 Barcelona women were instrumental in engaging the whole community in the strike and it occasioned the first ever soviet. Despite the killing of 28 strikers the strike held and its demands were won. When it spread to Łódź, the ‘Manchester’ of Eastern Europe, however, the repression was fierce and two hundred workers were killed in late June 1905. The dynamic of 1905 did not however disappear, returning in 1917 when the strike of Petrograd textile workers was instrumental in the fall of the Tsarist regime. During the same period in England young women in the woolen and cotton mills of Yorkshire and Lancashire gave the Suffragette movement of votes for women a militant working class base. In February 1971, it was self-organized strikes and occupations of textile factories by women in Łódź – involving 55,000 of them in several factories and despite the heavy discipline of male supervisors -that forced the monopoly Communist Party government to rescind a food price increase in the country. In recent times women have taken leading roles in fighting for rights in Egyptian cotton mills, and this played a part in the downfall of the Mubarak regime and continued in struggles with the Muslim Brotherhood and, with great courage, against the al-Sisi dictatorship even when this has meant certain imprisonment.


Since the 1960s however, the mass of women have worked not in mills but in the ‘cut, sew and trim’ business of making garments, though they are excluded from the business of cutting. Because cloth is a ‘limp’ material, sewing has not been and cannot be automated, even though it was revolutionized by the introduction of the sewing-machine in the 1850s.  Developments of the sewing-machine itself have not changed to any appreciable extent, and the industry still depends on a mass of labor. Apologists for  the highly exploitative nature of the work argue that it is not only a supplier of work and incomes in ‘less developed’ countries but, by giving women their own income, offers them an independence and autonomy in an urban environment they would not have in their villages. There is of course some truth in this, and interviews with such women confirm it, but it needs to be qualified in several ways.


First, the likely short time-span for which it is possible to work in conditions such as those described by Jane Collins in Mexico: in the case of a Mexican factory producing for GAP and CalvinKlein, 75% of the clothing workforce had sound health before they entered it, but soon developed a range of physical illnesses.“ The reasons of health decline were industrial threats, unfavorable working environment and want of staff facilities, inflexible terms and conditions of garment employment, workplace pressure and low wages. Different work-related threats and their influence on health forced employees to leave the job after a few months of joining the factory; the average length of service was only 4 years”.[7]

Second, in Cambodia, now a major site for such work, the independence of the city may not be a free choice as coalitions of domestic power groups and international capital are engaged in large-scale land grabs, forcing peasant families out of their previously independent economies.

At the same time the country has seen the widest range of resistance to conditions like ‘mass faintings’, and the most successful wage struggles in recent years, defying both violent repression from the state and employer goon squads, which included the killing of five workers at the beginning of 2014, and the usual threats from employers that increased wages would make their products ‘uncompetitive.’ Despite this, over that year the minimum wage was almost doubled.

When Montaigne stopped in a little French town in September 1580, heheard an unusual story that he recorded in his travel diary. It was about sevenor eight girls who agreed to “dress up as males and thus continue their life inthe world. One of them set up as a weaver … fell in love with a woman, courted her, and married. The couple lived together for four or five months, to the wife’s satisfaction,” Montaigne reported. But then the transvestite was recognized.“The matter was brought to justice, and she was condemned to be hanged, which she said she would rather undergo than return to a girl’s status; and she was hanged for using illicit devices to supply her defect in sex.”[8] This took place at a time when weaving was a male occupation with women often stuck in the role of spinning to supply the yarn. Over centuries and geographies women in textile production have been categorized, defined, and discriminated against, but have also made it a site of liberation and resistance.

[1]Jane L. Collins, Threads: gender, labor and power in the global apparel industry. Chicago, London : University of Chicago Press, 2003 ; Edna Bonacich and Richard Appelbaum,  Behind the label: inequality in the Los Angeles apparel industry. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2000

[2] Janet Hunter and Helen Macnaughtan, ‘Gender and the global textile industry’, In: Lex Heermavan Voss, ElsHiemstra-Kuperus, and Elise van NederveenMeerkerk, (eds.), The Ashgate companion to the history of textile workers16502000. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2010.




[6] Al Alvarez, Where did it all go right?  London: Bloomsbury, 2005

[7]Jane L. Collins, Threads: gender, labor and power in the global apparel industry. Chicago, London : University of Chicago Press, 2003.

[8]Valerie Traub, The renaissance of lesbianism in early modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.