The Danger of a Single Story: Presenting the Lives of Garment Factory Workers

Last week marked six years since the Rana Plaza factory collapse, but are will still hooked on images of helpless garment factory workers toiling behind sewing machines?

Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie, the feminist writer speaks of the danger of a single story in her Ted talk arguing that "power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person". What then is important to consider is the presentation of garment factory workers whose cause is often championed by white middle-class women like myself in the global north.

I came across the Lives Behind the Label video series about a year back and think it offers a great representation of the lives of those working in factories for western retailers. Crucially the clips explore themes beyond merely what it is like working in a garment factory that reproduces the tired narrative of 'here are the poor and oppressed brown people'. The New Internationalist, the creator behind the series, argue that "the media in the West tends to present a grim, one-dimensional picture of garment factories: women crouched over sewing machines working long hours for low pay for unscrupulous employers whose negligence leads to disasters such as the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, which killed 1,135 people and left thousands more injured", thus reifying the need for a new narrative.

One of the women interviewed, Nazma, boldly states "I am the rebel" subverting the iconography of anonymous victimhood with her fiery stance and unforgiving attitude. What I love about the videos is that they depict a far more complex narrative than the monolithic presentations we usually see, meanwhile diverging from neo-colonial tropes of the helpless needing to be rescued by western saviours.

They continue, "that is part of the truth, but it is not the whole story. The rise of factory work has also brought radical changes and new freedoms, creating new social classes and shaking up habits and lifestyles" bringing to the forefront the fact that globalisation with its clear discontents and neo-imperialist underpinnings has, in fact, come with changes that run contrary to our understanding of the exploited worker paradigm.

The New Internationalist wanted to hear about some of these lifestyle changes, directly from the factory workers who are living through this period of rapid industrialisation. Through a partnership with the Awaj Foundation, one of Bangladesh's largest trade unions, they ran storytelling workshops with 80 garment workers in five different neighbourhoods of Dhaka.

Click here to watch the stories.


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