Collective Well-Being as Resistance: Garment Workers against Racial Capitalism

by | 25 Apr 2024

Nanak naam, 

chardi kala, 

tere bane sarbat da bhala.

I say these words by way of normalising a Sikh consciousness and vocabulary. The words appear at the end the Ardas, one of the Sikh prayers that is part of ritualistic daily practice. I am not quoting them here to advocate a religious position but rather to encourage us to be open to a political spirituality that might allow us to imagine more radical, anti-racist possibilities for freedom, rights and resistance. And, to emphasise in particular the concept of sarbat da bhala* – or, welfare of all – as a way of understanding and responding to our ‘struggles for the human’ (Montesinos-Coleman, 2024)

I denounce the religious but secular projects rooted in nationalism are also dangerous – particularly pertinent today is the neoliberal settler colonial logic of dispossession that is Zionism (see Ihab Maharmeh’s piece in this collection). The spread of the ideology of Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, in the diaspora is an important context for what I say here because it has contributed to the ‘re-colonisation’ of Britain’s immigrant hubs to label them ‘dirty’, to distract from modern slavery in postcolonial Britian and to supress worker resistance.

In the past month, Britain’s immigrant hubs have been classed as ‘no go zones’ and its capital said to be run by ‘Islamists’ – these Islamophobic comments have not been named as such by PM Rishi Sunak. As I wrote almost a year ago for red pepper magazine, Sunak is a racial gatekeeper whose brown face allows him to support Islamophobia and racism whilst promoting his own supremacist agenda. The racial gatekeepers, including Braverman and Patel before her, are not striving for proximity to the white, liberal elite but for ‘collaboration with white ruling classes’. Pankaj Mishra explains that ‘political passivity rather than struggles for social justice largely defines the history of the Indian diaspora, especially of its highly educated and upper-caste members… who regard their Black and brown compatriots as the losers of history and escape to London to join its white winners’. It seems that shocking parallels remain with the fight against the far right taken on by British Asians in the 1970s as aired earlier this month via Channel 4’s programme, Defiance.

Just think about Leicester, where we saw Islamophobic violence in September 2022 and which a recent report on ‘Hindutva in Britain’ calls a ‘case study in demonstrating the presence of Hindu nationalist sentiment in the UK today’. Racial politics, racialised industry and austerity have meant that Leicester’s garment district is also a case study in modern slavery and the failure of rights. These garment factory workers, predominantly women from South Asian, African and minority ethnic communities, are not deemed deserving of rights to fair pay, fair working conditions or indeed to their collective well-being. I invite you to be troubled by this, and refer you to Ben Rogaly’s piece for this series and the ethos of the Jewish radical tradition that believes that ‘no one is free until all are free’. 

My argument is that within the context of a hostile environment – where location (the city) and industry (factory work) are racialised as ‘dirty’, worker resistance is supressed in a way that rights cannot remedy because this is an ethical problem that legal rights cannot solve. This hostile environment stretches from Leicester to Palestine – it operates, as Ihab Maharmeh says, by producing slow death; whether this be, as he calls it, slow daily killing or producing debility through a right to maim, as Jasbir Puar describes. Also, legal rights see a liberal subject – white, male, wealthy and heterosexual – not a collective. So, I argue for a right to collective well-being based in the Sikhi concept of sarbat da bhala, or welfare of all. 

The riots or unrest / disorder in Leicester – all terms that avoid signifying Hindutva-inspired Islamophobia – have had a lasting effect. They ‘seemed to expose hidden fault lines running through England, not least the changing character of the country’s racial politics amid conditions of austerity, low economic growth and new migration flows’, wrote Yohann Koshy for The Guardian’s long read last month. Leicester is in a state of decay. It’s garment district, never known for its aesthetic, is dilapidated and diminished. In 2022, there were approx. 700 factories employing around 10,000 workers. According to Koshy, this number has halved. The visual impact of moving through areas of Highfields and Evington reflects the open secret of Leicester’s garment industry – the neglect of factory workers at the mercy of fast fashion giants like the infamous Boohoo, paying less than minimum wage and skimping on safety precautions. What you see is what you get – an impoverished, racially layered informal economy. 

It always gets to me every time I go home. Because this is where I spent my early childhood – the streets of Evington. The women in salwar kameez walking home after shift could be my grandmother. The women in burquas walking their kids home could be our neighbours. Yet this ‘failure in multiculturalism’, as Suella Braverman labelled Leicester after the violence of 2022, is actually a failure of the state to protect its citizens and of the effects of racial capitalism where labour is valued but collective life and well-being is not.

In fact, beyond the generic grouping of garment factory workers as women, of colour, immigrants there is no collective to which they belong. The garment worker community is split along race, gender and caste lines that are complex and divisive. This is how re-colonisation works – by a divide and conquer motto that doesn’t need actual borders but the far less tangible, more ingrained social, cultural and political differences that it feeds on to pit us against each other. So Leicester has been described as a ‘partition city’ – though Hindus and Muslims live side by side we are split into Belgrave and Highfields, and it is partitioned in how it mobilises resistance. Due to their vulnerable right-to-work status, gender, race, class, or caste identities, or precarious socioeconomic situations, garment factory workers are less likely to register complaints. When I spoke to Claudia Webbe MP for Leicester East, she lamented the loss of fight. Resilience has turned into subservience, she said. It’s not like in the days of Imperial.

Our conversations for this series took place on the day before International Women’s Day 2024 (8 March). So it’s fitting to mention the legacy of the South Asian women of the Imperial Typewriters strike in 1974, who walked out in protest at being denied the same promotions and bonuses as their white colleagues, marking an iconic moment in anti-racist and working class struggle in 1970s Britain. One such hopeful event did happen in October last year – over 500 people, mainly women, came together in Spinney Hill Park to protest against big fashion brands and ensure all workers are paid the National Living Wage. It is worth noting that incomes in Leicester East are a third less than the national average in England, with over 40 percent of children living in poverty.

Workers’ rights don’t seem to belong to the garment industry. These women and their families – for this is the only true collective they know, not trade unions but family – cannot avail of a right to collective bargaining to challenge their abandonment.

The right to collective bargaining is not a legal right. It is a relational right that I propose we can practice through an ethics based in care and refusal, what I call an ethics of seva. Seva is one of the cornerstones of Sikhi – it translates to ‘selfless service’ and is reflected most visibly in the community kitchen, or langar, which feeds anyone of any race, gender or caste. I suggest that a radical reading of seva can inform and extend our understanding of how we treat each other – how we understand nourishment both literally, as feeding the body, but also in a political spiritual way as nourishing the soul. 

An ethics of seva surpasses the language of legal rights as a remedy for the abandonment of Leicester’s garment workers. Rather than legal principles, an ethics of seva embodies practices of care and refusal – such as collective protest, which brings solidarity and even joy to those who prepare protest signs, pack food or bake goods for the picket line, make the playlist for the music to listen to en route. How can we do the work of this ethics and support workers’ resistance?

It has to be from the ground up. Not through more rights or even just changes to the Modern Slavery Act to recognise the appalling working conditions of Leicester’s garment workers, which include wage theft. Though of course demands for legislation to enforce decent work and decent pay, as continue to be made by local activists and MPs, are important.

‘Through actions we want to solidify the trust’, says Tarek Islam, the Senior Community Engagement and Outreach Officer for FAB-L (Fashion-workers Advice Bureau Leicester), a project working out of Highfields Community Centre. ‘It is the trust and empowerment that is important, not the legal labels or limited remedies. Speaking with people, being silent so you hear them, talking to them as individuals and not statistics.’ Tarek, who I first spoke to in 2021, and his team practice collective bargaining and collective refusal – providing English language lessons, a factory workers club, community events like day trips to the beach and showcase events like ‘garment worker stories’ and recitals where whole families are welcome, food is provided and there is no pressure to perform, just share. 

The work of FAB-L in the garment worker community is an ethics of seva as friendship – where defined as a way of life (Foucault)that sees differences in being and living conditions. And that promotes a relational right not a legal right to collective bargaining to challenge abandonment. A relational right, as Foucault defines it, is not a right in a legal code; it is simply how one behaves to be seen and to practice pleasure, or what we in rights terms would call freedom. Key to this is that relational rights, I am suggesting, do not rely on an ideal liberal individual to exercise them. But on a collective. They are dependent on a relational ethics that relies on the welfare of all. A cosmological sense of the human as aatma, or spirit, and humans as everyone.

What is useful about this? Should you care if you are not from Leicester, if your grandparents did not work in the factories? If you are not Sikh? There are anti-racist possibilities for how we think of rights, of the human of rights and the collective. Possibilities that inform how we respond to abandonment in hostile environments, defined by racialised industry, colonialism, and settler colonialism. Rights have failed to respond to hostile environments and it is not a stretch to speak here of our current collective struggle for ‘humanity’ in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and of our only hope being friendship as practices of struggle. To extend an understanding of the right not to be abandoned to those suffering a genocide. This is our obligation, our hukam.

Waheguru. From the river to the sea.  

————————

* I have chosen not to italicise Sikhi terms so as not to marginalise this vernacular.  

Glosses of Sikhi Terms – 

Sikhi – Sikhism

Sarbat da bhala – welfare of all

Seva – ‘self-less’ service

Langar – the community kitchen

Aatma – spirit

Hukam – obligation, or (divine) command 

Bal Sokhi-Bulley is a legal academic who writes and teaches on critical approaches to rights. Her recent work uses the concept of ‘radical friendship’ read through Sikhi to re-imagine rights through practices of struggle. For instance, see her latest on The Farmers’ Protests

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