Our Cotton Colonies

We follow a T-shirt's supply chain from Burkina Faso to Bangladesh to your local mall—and back again.

The history of cotton is tightly braided into the history of Western capitalism. A major thread of the British Empire, the crop helped weave the efficient and ruthless structures of today’s globalized economy. The T-shirts we buy at retailers like Gap and H&M may feel far removed from the bloody past of a crop synonymous in

the 19th century with slavery and sweatshops. But when one follows the global supply chain of cotton growers, workers, traders and factory owners, it becomes increasingly apparent that capitalism has not, in fact, traveled far at all from its bloody origins.

Cotton is a flexible crop. It will grow anywhere rain is plentiful and temperatures remain above freezing for at least 200 days a year. Archaeological records show that humans have cultivated it for millennia in Africa, India, Central America and South America. As early as the 7th-century B.C.E., Herodotus described the army of Xerxes I of Persia wearing clothes of exceptional beauty “made of wool that grew on trees.”

Europe was late to the game, relying on linen, flax, silk and wool through much of the Renaissance. When the English India Company brought cheap and colorful calico and chitz to Britain in the second half of the 17th century, they were an instant hit. Europeans loved that the lively colors didn’t fade with the first washing.

To squash this new competition, European textile producers used all kinds of leverage against the Indian cotton industry. France outlawed cotton entirely in 1686; England passed a partial ban on Indian cotton in 1701 and a stricter ban in 1721; Spain, Prussia and other nations followed suit with various restrictions.

Businessmen eventually saw an opportunity for profit, however, and began building a European cotton industry grounded in colonialism and slavery. The cheap cotton harvested by enslaved people in North America allowed Britain to undercut India’s prices. According to historian Gene Dattel, Britain was importing 1.2 billion pounds of cotton annually from North America by 1860. Nearly 1 million workers in Britain’s mills and factories rendered the cotton into garments that made up 40 percent of national exports.

“Cotton,” writes Dattel in Cotton and Race in the Making of America, “was the single most important contributor to Britain’s economic power and its rise to preeminence as a world empire.” Cotton became a springboard for the Industrial Revolution, and for a global economy that favored limitless accumulation of capital.

Today, cotton crops occupy about 2.5 percent of the world’s arable land. The industry is the primary source of income for hundreds of millions of farmers and factory workers. That income is typically meager, however. Cotton workers are the perennial losers in a global race to the bottom. Multinational clothing companies seek out the cheapest textile manufacturing hubs. Factories, in turn, buy the cheapest cotton they can find. Any added expenses, including higher wages, may prompt buyers to flee to ever-cheaper factories—sometimes leaving entire national economies in tatters.

In These Times followed the cotton life cycle from the fields of Burkina Faso to the factories of Bangladesh to the sales racks of Slovenia. Along the way, we spoke with the people who make the shirts, jeans and countless other items you wear every day, to understand the real wages of cotton.

A farmer picks up the harvest in a cotton field near Toussiana, Burkina Faso.

Boromo, Burkina Faso

December 2015—“Do you know maybe if a machine for picking cotton exists?” Paul Timbi Kobassare asks. It’s a warm December morning. A dozen of his family members and neighbors pick cotton balls on one of his fields, which is no bigger than two acres. They will still need another day to gather up to a ton of raw cotton. Then Kobassare will drive the harvest home on a cart hitched to a donkey. In a few weeks, on market day, he will transport it to the collection center, an empty space at the edge of the village where each farmer heaps his own pile of cotton. They help each other press their harvests into huge, hard masses to be weighed. After they’ve measured that season’s yield, the farmers will bundle their harvests together and wait for the trucks. The trucks will take the cotton to one of 16 ginning factories owned by Sofitex (Société Burkinabè des Fibres Textiles), the largest cotton company in Burkina Faso. There, workers will extract the seeds, press the fiber into bales, and ship the bales to ports in Benin, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Togo. Most will be sent overseas to be processed in Asian cotton mills.

Burkina Faso is Africa’s biggest grower and exporter of raw cotton. The state supports the industry with loans, technical assistance and seasonal price guarantees for cotton growers. Two hundred thousand small farms produce as much as 700,000 tons of cotton each year. Directly or indirectly, 4 million people depend on the crop—a fifth of Burkina Faso’s population. 

Kobassare grows five acres of cotton, close to average for a farmer in Burkina Faso. He calculates his 2015 cotton profits, distributed over the year, at slightly more than $1 a day. In addition to his cotton fields, he owns two cows, six sheep, ten pigs and about 5 acres dedicated to corn, millet and peanuts. But these are to feed his family; cotton is his only cash crop.

Kobassare’s only alternative to earn money is gold mining. There are 800 small artisanal mines scattered all over the country. Like other freelance miners in Burkina Faso, Kobassare would have to travel from mine to mine in the hopes of striking gold. He might have to go to neighboring countries. His workday could stretch from early morning until dusk, or from dusk until dawn, Sunday to Sunday. He would rarely get to see his family.

“In a gold mine, everything depends on luck,” Kobassare says. “I could maybe earn four or five dollars a day. But cotton guarantees me one dollar a day.”

Sofitex guarantees cotton farmers a purchase price before the crop is planted—$0.36 per kilogram in 2015. On top of that, the cotton growers’ union negotiates a bonus, dependent on the price of cotton on the world market. Some years, there is no bonus, but it has been as much as $0.06 per kilogram.

In April 2015, when the seeding began, Sofitex loaned Kobassare genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds, fertilizers, insecticide and herbicide. More than 70 percent of the cotton harvested in Burkina Faso that year came from GM seeds. Even though the GM seeds are more expensive, farmers prefer them because the crop requires fewer toxic pesticides than conventional cotton.

“The kids who go to school and browse the internet advise us to use genetically modified cotton [to limit pesticide exposure],” explains a representative of the growers’ union in the village of Toussiana in southwest Burkina Faso. “Our sprayers are in really bad condition and we don’t have any protective suits. We are poisoning ourselves with the chemicals on the field.”

Unfortunately, the GM cotton came with a problem. First introduced under a government agreement with Monsanto in 2003, the fibers grow shorter and shorter with each generation, lowering the quality and the price of the cotton each year.

The state cotton association, Association Interprofessionnelle du Coton au Burkina (AICB), sued Monsanto for $83.91 million in April 2016 and phased out the GM cotton, providing farmers only with conventional seeds. But cotton cultivators are not keen to go back to using more pesticides.

A family in Boromo, Burkina Faso, tramples a pile of cotton so it can be weighed.

Dhaka, Bangladesh

March 2016—Three years after the accident, the hellish noise of the collapsing Rana Plaza building still echoes in Nazma’s head. It’s worst at night.

Standing in her home, a one-room hut, Nazma says, “I bought this for myself with compensation I got [for the accident].”

“A pleasant little house,” I answer. She looks at me with surprise. “Furniture,” she corrects me. “I bought furniture for this room.”

I look around. Two metal beds, a closet and a mirror.

Nazma (who, like the other Bangladeshi garment workers interviewed, preferred not to use her last name for fear of employer retaliation) lives in a rented room with her husband and five children. Nila, 8, the youngest among them, is in fact Nazma’s niece. Nila’s mother didn’t survive the Rana Plaza disaster.

A several-yards-high concrete statue stands in the spot where, in 2013, 1,130 textile workers died in the ruins of Rana Plaza and 2,500 were injured. A few days before the accident, workers noticed cracks in the eight-story commercial building. The shops and the bank on the lower floors were immediately closed, but the owners of the upper-level garment factories instructed workers to come in. On April 24, 2013, the building collapsed during the morning rush hour. Nazma escaped; her sister did not.

The statue’s fists—male fists—emanate worker power. But most of the workers in Bangladesh’s textile industry, the second-largest in the world, are women. They comprise up to 90 percent of the country’s 4.2 million textile workers. 

Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed, assistant executive director of the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies, says that most of the women come from rural areas where, traditionally, there was only one option: to marry. In his opinion, the textile industry brought enormous social changes to Bangladeshi society.

“Sometimes girls and women didn’t even dare to think that they would ever cross the borders of their village,” he says. “Now, they go to Dhaka. Before, their brothers would send them dresses for celebrations. Now they’re getting clothes for their brothers. Now they’re sending money for medicine for their fathers and mothers.”

Anowara, another Bangladeshi textile worker, has more ambitious goals for her children. “They have to finish school,” she says. “I don’t want them to spend their lives behind a sewing machine, like I do.”

She and her husband work in a textile factory with 12,000 workers. Their two children, ages 5 and 6, are at her parents’ place, in a village in northeast Bangladesh, approximately 650 kilometers away.

Anowara would prefer to live in the tight-knit community where she grew up, but “there are no possibilities there to earn a living if you don’t have land,” she explains. She has been in Dhaka for three years.

“I don’t regret that we came,” she says. “But once we’ve saved enough money, we will go back. With the help of our parents, we will buy a piece of land and will start a farm. I hope I will also be able to buy myself a sewing machine.”

Her workday is at least 10 hours long. When there are large orders, it gets even longer. In a month, she earns—including overtime pay—$89. The rent is $39 and food costs about $32.

Ahmmed is certain that Bangladesh needs the textile industry. Out-of-work textile workers can’t find new employment easily, amid fierce competition for other low-wage jobs. That’s why he is concerned about Western consumers’ boycotts of fashion labels that use factories in Bangladesh.

Instead, he wants developed countries to apply diplomatic pressure on governments and clothing manufacturers. He says this could ensure safe working environments and living wages for workers everywhere—not just in Bangladesh.

“Multinational corporations are ruthless in their greed,” he says. “The very moment when our country will stop ensuring enough profit, [corporations] will simply move the production sites to other Third World countries, which are not yet under the suspicion of the critical Western public.”

Fearing that higher wages and better working conditions will drive away corporations, governments and factory owners cooperate to suppress independent unions. The leader of a small independent union of textile workers in Bangladesh, who prefers to remain anonymous, says he has been arrested several times in connection with labor organizing.

An experienced and highly trained textile worker, he says he cannot get a job due to his activity in the union. Years ago he worked in South Korea, along with many other migrant workers from Bangladesh. The wages there were higher, but he got deported after urging his co-workers to unionize. 

Did anything change after the Rana Plaza accident? According to union leaders, safety has improved at the larger factories that supply global brands—at least in the areas of the workplace that foreign buyers can see. The minimum wage was raised to 5,300 taka, a little less than $68 per month. Workers say this is still too low and went on mass strikes in December 2016 to demand $187 or more.

Yet even the more modest increase may be driving companies away. One of Bangladesh’s largest clothing buyers, H&M, recently expanded to garment factories in Ethiopia and Burma, where wages are lower. The Swedish multinational made $2.1 billion in profits in 2016.

A garment worker sews at her station in a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

August 2016—A sleeveless cotton dress hangs in a spacious H&M store. It has a close-fitting bodice and a pleated skirt. It’s red and printed with small white and yellow flowers. From a distance, it looks like it was made from jamdani, one of the finest muslin textiles of Bengal, once intended for aristocrats and royalty. I look at the price: $10.90. I check the label: Made in Bangladesh. I feel the fabric. I buy it, although I doubt I’ll ever wear it. It doesn’t really suit me. I know I’ll take it out of the closet from time to time and then, at some point, simply bring it to a Red Cross office—along with a bundle of other clothes—and thus free up my closet and satisfy my guilty conscience. Prineseš nazaj, podariš naprej. (“Bring it back and pass it on”) was the slogan of Ljubljana’s H&M during the European Week for Waste Reduction.

The Ljubljana Red Cross humanitarian center, one of dozens of used-clothing collection points in Ljubljana, receives approximately 100 tons of clothing and textile products each year. They come mostly from the Ljubljana, a metro region of fewer than 300,000 people.

“We never run out of clothes,” says Ema Verbnik, the head of the collection center. “In fact, it’s an endless circle. We’ve been receiving more and more good stuff—shoes that no one wants to wear, brand-new clothes still on hangers. All of this, however, merely points to a growing [income] divide.”

About 40 to 50 percent of the clothes can’t be donated in Ljubljana because they arrive ripped or filthy. These are sorted roughly, then shipped to Romania, where an Austrian company separates them into more than 150 types of materials. The work is tedious. That’s why it’s done in Romania, where the average single person earns only $5,463 a year. Most is sold as low-quality goods to poor countries—including Burkina Faso.

Dresses hang on a rack at an H&M megastore in London.

Boromo, Burkina Faso

December 2015—Of course, I know the answer to Kobassare’s question of whether machines for picking cotton exist. But I say nothing. What would change for him if he knew that his and his family’s manual labor competes against farmers in the U.S. with tractors and combines that simultaneously harvest cotton and press it into bales for transport? What would he gain if I told him that Karl and Terry Button, brothers whose farm I visited in Arizona, could harvest his five acres of cotton in less than 30 minutes? Enormous noisy machinery, worth several hundred thousand dollars, rambles through their fields during harvesting season.

Yet cotton still costs more to produce in the United States than in Burkina Faso. Were it not for government subsidies, U.S. technology might still not be enough to compete with Burkina Faso’s extremely low wages.

On a December morning, I walk with Paul Timbi Kobassare and his family as they meander along a macadam road that winds around cotton fields spread through a flat valley.

They are walking slowly. There’s no rush: The warmer the day grows, the more the cotton heads will open and the easier the work becomes. When they arrive at the field, they bend over the yard-high bushes, reach for the white heads and stick them into plastic sacks that once held fertilizer. At noon, when the sun is at its highest point in the sky, they lie down in the soft cotton heap and suck on slices of watermelon.

I silently observe them. It could be the 19th century, perhaps even the cotton fields of the American South. Except one thing is different. T-shirts. Everyone is wearing them. They’re multicolored, scrawled with faded slogans. The cloth is so worn that I have to guess at what the words say: Boss? Emirates? Messi? Unicef? … A jumble.

I can only guess at the journey these T-shirts have made. Maybe the cotton was grown here in Burkina Faso, without ploughs, with bad seeds. Maybe it was grown in the United States with tractor sprinklers, combines and subsidies. Maybe the fabric was woven in large dark and noisy halls, some of it by children because their hands are tiny. Maybe it was dyed by men in even darker and noisier halls where the air, thick with poisonous gases, glues itself to their skin. Maybe it was worn for a time by a consumer in Europe, or the United States, or China, before being tossed in the recycling heap. But surely, somebody earned a great deal of money along the way.

This project was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Another photo essay based on this reporting appeared on TheNation.com.

Farmers load cotton onto Sofitex containers near Boromo, Burkina Faso.

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