Stuck in the clothes factory
17 april, 2018
Every year one million tourists are drawn to the white sands of Mauritius. But this paradise island has a darker side; the textile factories. The migrant workers’ passports are collected, they are not permitted to see their families for several years and they work 70 hours a week. Some of them come from the neighbouring island of Madagascar.
This is how the textile business works:
In Mauritius there are about 40 000 migrant workers from countries such as Bangladesh, Madagascar and India. They are mostly found in the textile sector but also in the building industry and in bakeries. According to the union CTSP they are not covered by any collective agreement. That is excluded when the sign contracts with the workers.
The textile industry has gone through a couple of hard years but is now recovering and is expected to become important for the economic development of Madagascar. The low wages makes it hard for many people to make ends meet, unions say. A way out is to travel to the neighbouring country Mauritius as migrant workers.
The golden sand is slipping softly between my toes and the corals are nicely rounded. Big cruise ships are anchored a bit further out in the 25-degree water, waiting to take the tourists to diving and fishing trips. A stout Frenchman has spread himself all over a sun chair.
He is lying on his side with the partly hairy and blotchy backside turned away from the sun. The man raises his arm and waves at two waiters dressed in white who are moving around in an electric golf car with a bar. At the five star luxury resort Sugar Beach customers need not rise to have refreshments. The bar comes to them.
Mauritius in the southern Indian Ocean has a surface of only four times the Isle of Wight. And it has inviting beaches and hotel compounds all along the coast. Every year, a million tourists travel to the island, mostly from France, Great Britain and South Africa. It was visited by the American author Mark Twain in the late 19th century. A Mauritian farmer allegedly said to him that “Mauritius was made first, then the sky, and the sky was copied from Mauritius.” But the luxurious front is hiding another reality, we will come back to that later on.
A little more than an hour’s flight westward Josiane is staring through a hole in a sheeted steel door at a textile company in Madagascar. The guard on the inside covers the hole. At the same time, dark clouds gather over Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo. Within minutes there is a hard rain. The country has just recovered from a plague epidemic that made 2 000 people ill and killed 200. The plague is ravaging Madagascar almost every year. This year’s epidemic was worse than usual as it spread from the countryside to the larger cities.
Josiane wasn’t hit by the plague. Together with a hundred discarded and destitute textile workers they habitually bring out their umbrellas against the rain. Late in autumn it is common with sudden and violent rainstorms on the island. The workers gather in small groups, waiting. Waiting to be called into the factory yard to have their last pay.
No one had foreseen what was going to happen as they were summoned to the cafeteria in the factory one afternoon a week ago. The management announced that the work force was going to be reduced by 108 textile workers. Their key cards were taken from them and they had to leave the premises. Their own view is that the management got rid of those who had most children. Neither the number of years of employment, nor competence seemed to have mattered.
Josine is one of those who had to leave. Six years ago she set foot in the factory for the first time. Work started at 7AM and she often came home late when the small children were already sleeping. Her monthly wage, the equivalent of 40 Euro, grew, with over-time, to 60 Euro which made it possible to hire a baby-sitter. The children’s father had left the family and made no contribution. Every now and then, as orders came in from customers such as Marc O’Polo, Marks&Spencer and the Swedish-sounding brands Nils Sundström and Christian Berg were heaping up, night shifts at the knitting machines were ordered.
“In periods I have been working both day and night. Double shifts.”
The textile workers gathered in front of the gates say that the company has broken the law. The period of notice should actually be one month. They were given less than two weeks. The plan is to go to court in order to receive the money they claim that the company owes them.
A first step is to have the final wages that the company has calculated. The guards on the inside of the doors and the barbed-wire fence are clearly annoyed. According to Barsom DD Rakotomanga, Secretary-General of the global union Industriall in Madagascar, it is rare to have this kind of attention around the factory.
Suddenly the steel doors are pulled apart and two men come rushing towards us. One of them is said to be chief of security. He is shouting out loud in French, waving his arms. He is angry because pictures of the factory area have been taken.
Barsom DD Rakotomanga, who has witnessed the whole incident, plays it down.
“The chief of security is manifestly irritated that you are here, reporting and taking pictures”, he says.
No manager is willing to come out to answer questions and we are not allowed into the area. A calm is settling and small groups of textile workers are let in to receive their final wages.
For those that have been made redundant what remains is to try to find work at other textile factories in Madagascar.
Tax reliefs on export to Europe and the USA, in combination with low wage costs have made the textile industry being called the engine for development on this poor island.
For some there is the possibility of increasing their earnings by taking a job as a migrant worker on the neighbouring island of Mauritius. Several companies have factories on both islands. The difference is that over there multi-year contracts, and few if any chances to see their families on the home island, awaits them.
In spite of Mauritius having a much stronger economy, the working conditions in the textile business are about the same. A man we can call Ahmad uses his lower arm to wipe the sweat off his forehead. He looks down a Levis t-shirt passing through his hands in the factory in the inland of Mauritius. Yet another twelve-hour day before he is allowed to leave the industrial estate and go to the dormitory that he is sharing with 38 workmates. Outside the sun is setting which makes the factory floor a little cooler.
The much talked about warm and lovely weather in Mauritius – he doesn’t see much of that. Sunday is the only day off. Ahmad mostly uses it for resting and washing. He has hardly seen the cooling sea during his two years on the island.
According to unanimous testimonies from several workers at Tropic Knits the basic salary is around the equivalent of 160 Euro a month which, with overtime, can be increased to 220 Euro. Apart from the salary the employer provides food and lodging.
The textile sector in Mauritius runs on migrant workers from countries such as Bangladesh, India, Madagascar and Sri Lanka. The constantly increasing tourism on the island has contributed to a better welfare for the country’s own population – they don’t need to take the low-paid, heavy jobs at the factories.
The migrant worker often live together in staff dormitories which can be situated inside and outside of the factory areas. The staff houses can be recognised by the large amount of laundry hanging on roofs and outside the windows. But it is hard for us to get in and talk to the workers. We are confronted by shouting security staff that doesn’t want to let in unauthorised persons. Bu not where Ahmad lives.
A foul smell hits us. A bit like a gymnastics hall and sweaty training clothes. Or a military barrack apart from the pungent smell of military clothing. On the first floor, in a dormitory, there are 19 bunk beds. Most people have put up some form of screen around their bed to have some privacy. A few showers and toilets are shared by all. For three years this dormitory is their home. It is Sundy and a day off, but surprisingly many are lying in their beds instead of making something out of their free day.
“I am too tired. I need to sleep ahead of next working week”, Ahmed says.
There used to be a TV set in the small kitchen space but it broke down many months ago and has not been repaired or replaced by the company.
The textile workers tell us that they produce t-shirts for various brands, among them the American brand Levis. Several among them say that they are working without a contract and complain about team leaders collecting their passports as soon as they have landed in Mauritius.
“We can find work here and earn money. I am supporting many people in Bangladesh”, says Ahmad.
The men are free to do whatever they like when they are not working. If they want to take the bus to the coast or go out shopping, they do so.
The female migrant workers in a nearby factory live within the factory compound inside of a fence that is 2.5 metres tall. The factory is situated between a motorway and cultivated, green fields. A woman sitting outside at the back of the factory is using her phone. As she is finished she agrees to be interviewed through the fence. The guards at the main entrance refuse to let visitors into the staff building.
The woman is constantly looking over her shoulder. She says she is 25 and has worked here for six years. In that period she has been back in Bangladesh to see her family only once. In the background we can see a multi-storey compound with external galleries where migrant workers live; 14 people in every room.
“My contract expires in a few months. I want to stay. I am earning money”, she says.
She tells us that the working day is 11-12 hours a day, a little less on Saturdays. Sunday is the only day off. She doesn’t want to disclose how much she is paid.
An older woman appears in the background. She sounds harsh as she says something to her younger mate. Without saying a word more they make their way to the staff house which makes a colourful sight; lots of laundry all over the place.
At the other side of the factory areas there is a narrow stretch of grass between the motorway and the fence. Sitting behind an umbrella, leaning against the concrete wall there is a couple we can call Farah and Atif. They are newly married back home in Bangladesh when they heard about the agent who could fix jobs in the textile factories of Mauritius 6 000 kilometres from home. A light of hope was lit. A hope of earning money to be able to raise a family in the future. What this couple in love had not counted on was that the adventure meant that they could not see each other more than a few hours once a week.
Farah cannot invite Atif to her staff hose. And Atif, who is working in another factory, can only come here on his Sundays off. That’s when they meet under the umbrella. They sit close together, holding each other’s hands.
Farah and Atif share their fate with many others who have travelled together but end up in different factories. Around the ground other loving couples are strolling around, and also siblings and friends who take the opportunity to meet.
For Josiane in Madagascar the textile factories in Mauritius are no alternative. She has small children to take care of.
In order to reach her small house in the slum of Antananarivo, that she is sharing with her parents, we have been slipping and sliding on a muddy footpath meandering between derelict dwellings along a sort of stinking bog where the sewage water is mixing with garbage and a green leaf plant which, they say, is much appreciated by pigs.
Josiana is living with her two children on 15 square metres. All that can fit in is the bed that they share, a settee, a small table and some shelves with photos. A narrow staircase is leading to the next floor where her parents live.
Josiane is moving her hand across the knitted sweater with the name Nils Sundström that we have bought in a factory outlet. She is scratching a badly sewn up scar in her forehead before starting to tell her story.
She remembers this particular type of sweater well. It was on a Saturday and Josiane was counting on being able to go home already at 3:30PM. She was looking forward to seeing her children. Then a manager appeared ordering over-time. It was particularly important that the Nils Sundström order was finished in time.
She sighed silently. She knew, from her own experience, that there was no use complaining. Her shoulders and her back were aching after a week of work twelve hours a day at the heavy knitting machine. The only opportunity to sit down was during the lunch break around noon. The visits to the bathroom – one in the morning, one in the afternoon – did not count. They were so stressful. The managers checked how long it took for the staff to relieve themselves.
Josiane concentrated on clearing away all the thoughts in her head. Focus on the task. Because she was often told to take care of complicated patterns requiring advanced settings on the knitting machine. Josiane knew what would happen if she started daydreaming. One single, small mistake could lead to being scolded by bosses. To start all over again would prolong the working day still more.
“I was being harassed by one of the bosses too.”
She didn’t want to seem unkind so in the beginning she turned a blind eye to it in spite of all the unpleasant comments and touching. The harassment grew worse and eventually she told him off. Instead of a relief all hell broke loose. The male boss had been offended. And Josiane had an enemy. An enemy who used every opportunity to order overtime, complain about her work and give her the hardest tasks.
“I didn’t want to go to work. But who was to support my children?”
A first tear glitters in her eye. I spite of the heavy subject her face projects strength and determination. As she has been waiting for the questions to be translated by the interpreter she has been nodding with a smile on her face. The sorrow shows when she speaks about the children.
“I don’t know how this will turn out now. Maybe I will try to open a small shop.”
The scar in her forehead is showing more now that she brushes her hair to one side. A memory from work that she will carry for the rest of her life. The scar happened as a weight fell from a knitting machine on her head. She passed out and had to be taken in an ambulance to a hospital where doctors found that she had been close to having her scull crushed. Four days later Josiane was back at work. The doctor had prescribed two weeks of rest at home but the company thought that she was fit for work. Josiane did not dare to say no.
“My monthly salary was half of the retail price for a sweater in shops in Europe. You must write about how they are treating us. For my part I am just a prisoner of the system.”
Reporter: Marcus Derland
Photos: David Lundmark
Translation: Lars Ryding
Note 1: Dagens Arbete is a Swedish monthly magazine with a circulation of 380 000 copies. Our readers are industrial workers
Note 2: The reporting journey to Madagascar and Mauritius has partly been financed by a grant from the development aid organisation Union to union. IF Metall and Unionen is supporting various unions in Mauritius and Madagascar through Industriall.