The Song of the Shirt

The High Price of Cheap Garments, from Blackburn to Bangladesh

April 2015 9781849045223 288pp


In April 2013 Rana Plaza, an unremarkable eight-story commercial block in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1,129 people and injuring over 2,000. Most of them were low paid textile workers who had been ordered to return to their cramped workshops the day after ominous cracks were discovered in the building’s concrete structure.

Rana Plaza’s destruction revealed a stark tragedy in the making: of men (in fact mostly women and children) toiling in fragile, flammable buildings who provide the world with limitless cheap garments — through Primark, Walmart, Benetton and Gap — and bring in 70 per cent of Bangladesh’s foreign exchange, though they earn a pittance.

In elegiac prose, Jeremy Seabrook investigates the disproportionate sacrifices demanded by the manufacture of such throwaway items as baseball caps and sweatshirts. He also traces the intertwined histories of workers in what is now Bangladesh, and Lancashire. Two hundred years ago the former were dispossessed of ancient skills and their counterparts in Lancashire forced into labour settlements; in a ghostly replay of traffic in the other direction, the decline of Britain’s textile industry coincided with Bangladesh becoming one of the world’s major clothing exporters. The two examples offer mirror images of impoverishment and affluence. With capital becoming more protean than ever, it won’t be long before global business, in its nomadic cultivation of profit, relocates mass textile manufacture to an even cheaper source of labour than Bangladesh, with all too predictable consequences for those involved.

Table of contents

Part I: Fire

1. Dhaka: a temporary settlement
2. fire
3. fear of fire
4. the fabric of water
5. factories: a hardening tide of concrete
6. ‘useful factory hands’
7. unrest
8. the factory owners and their reasons
9. ghostly reconstitution of old imperial hierarchies
10. a modest demonstration
11. the battleground of Savar
12. the spectre of Senghenydd, 1913

Part II: Barisal

13. a melting, melancholy place
14. Amanathganj: submergence and eviction
15. death of a freedom fighter
16. rumours of freedom
17. middle class in a city of starvelings
18. sinking ship in emerald waters
19. hungry, thieving river
20. the path of migrants
21. a factory in the suburbs 1
22. the new gumashtas
23. urbanization without industry

Part III: Dhaka

24. the world’s ‘least liveable’ city
25. a history interwoven with textile
26. the fall of Dacca
27. spinning women
28. after the weavers
29. a city in decline
30. a city for psychoanalysts

Part IV: Murshidabad

31. a city neglected and unpeopled
32. a haunted culture
33. a shell of departed grandeur

Part V: Kolkata

34. the rise of two Calcuttas
35. bhadralok and chotolok
36. the jute mills
37. a dying city?
38. Kolkata and Dhaka: divergent Bengals

Part VI: Industrialism

39. free trade and protectionism in Britain
40. imperialism began at ‘home’
41. Manchester: under a pall of smoke
42. Bengal and Lancashire: prosperity and ruin
43. the shifting dunes of humanity
44. nabobs and new nawabs
45. two nations
46. first- and second-hand industrialism
47. teaspoons of legal humanitarianism
48. Bombay mills: boom and bust
49. re-industrializing Bangladesh
50. the un-industrializing of Lancashire
51. the pleasure factories
52. turning and turning in the widening gyre


‘What distinguishes this book is its deep historical consciousness…stitches together history, folklore and hundreds of encounters with individual Bangladeshis to give a thorough picture of the structural injustices that have led to the present situation.’
The New Statesman

‘Seabrook draws out the social, economic and imaginative parallels that connected, across decades and continents, Europe’s and Asia’s poor. … Seabrook has established himself as perhaps Britain’s finest anatomist of class, deindustrialisation, migration and the spiritual consequences of neoliberalism. The Song of the Shirt may well be his masterpiece.’ — The Guardian

‘The sweat and blood of Bangladeshi garment workers is woven into the very fabric of our daily lives. Seabrook, as he always has, delivers a brilliantly written jeremiad with an urgent moral message.’ — Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums

‘At once illuminating, deeply absorbing, and sobering, this is an ode to the ‘rags of humanity’ — the labourers, young and old — who sometimes perish in order to create our fashionably casual clothes. It’s written by one who’s long been intimate with this part of the world and its anonymous dwellers, and who has responded always with passion and eloquence.’ — Amit Chaudhuri, author of Calcutta: Two Years in the City

‘In this short yet compelling book, Seabrook skilfully weaves together tales of peasants with stories of weavers, moving back and forth between the village and the city, water and land, lush green fields and the ramshackle appearance of South Asia’s urban patches, even the poetic and the idioms of history. He is versed in historical sources but not burdened by them; and only someone with the sensibility of a poet can ruminate on the strange interplay of fire and water that has shaped the contours of the lives of his subjects. … Seabrook has accomplished the enviable task of rendering naked the social processes which have helped to clothe the world and disguise some unpalatable truths about the treacherousness of what is usually celebrated as entrepreneurial capitalism.’ — The Indian Express

‘Jeremy Seabrook puts together stitch by stitch, thread by thread, a stark picture of garment manufacturing in Bangladesh. …  Seabrook places his riveting narrative in historical context —making the link with the fires that abound in present-day Dhaka’s treacherous factories and the pauperisation of 18th century Dhaka weavers because of brutal colonial policies. …  A searing anger pervades Seabrook’s text. Every industrial ‘accident’ in 19th century England and 21st century Bangladesh is brought out of the archives. Stitched into this narrative, one gets the larger picture of disdain and disregard for the lives of the working poor.’ — Outlook India

Praise for Jeremy Seabrook:

‘The inspirational Jeremy Seabrook beats any celebrity radical in the art of speaking hard truths through fine prose.’ — Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

‘Jeremy Seabrook is one of England’s most imaginative and creative writers, with a preacher’s talent for prophecy and a capacity for righteous indignation reminiscent of George Orwell.’ — Richard Gott, The Guardian


Jeremy Seabrook is the author of more than forty books on subjects as diverse as transnational prostitution, child labour, social class, ageing, unemployment and poverty. His most recent include Pauperland: Poverty and the Poor in Britain and The Song of the Shirt: The High Price of Cheap Garments, from Blackburn to Bangladesh, which won the Bread and Roses Prize for Radical Publishing in 2016.

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