By Christian Winch
Since the collapse of Rana Plaza last year attention is finally being paid to the atrocious environments where much of our clothing is made. Their production is so far removed from our lives and their consumption so rapid that we often don’t pause to consider who pieces it all together and the circumstances of where it is made. What is slowly becoming clearer as the industry becomes more transparent is how the conditions in these places are blatantly terrible. We just don’t know these places, it is a vague someplace else and it produces an enormous amount of clothes.
While it has grown into something almost incalculably voluminous, modern clothing production was originally borne from our own love of fast-fashion and conceived through the rampant use of worker exploitation. Something which is truly a problem endemic to most clothing production. It is blatant misconception in drastic need of change to think the problems within the industry are unrelated to us here. Not all of what we wear is produced overseas, though much of it is, but there was a time where clothing production in Australia was big business and conditions were eerily similar to places like Rana Plaza. We wondered if we could find some way to humanise this problem to show it is not as something far-away, but as an issue without borders.
With this in mind, Undress was fortunate to speak with former Timer’s Fashion seamstress, Trudi Shinckel. She told us of her experiences of starting work as a young migrant worker in the once prominent South Australian fashion industry.
I started at Timer's Fashion in April 1959. The first thing that stood out for me was the size of the enormous shed where about 80 women and girls worked, they came from Gawler and surrounding areas, a lot from Elizabeth, mainly immigrants from England. They employed about 5 men, who would roll the many metres of material on huge tables the length of the shed, placed patterns on them and would cut out the materials with great speed.
Our day started at 8.00 am and finished at 4.30. With 20 min morning and 45 min lunch break. The first thing that I became aware of was the tremendous noise of about 70 sewing machines, going flat out, with daily quotes to be sewn and if you could not keep up, you were told to work faster. I was lucky I could keep up. Every section had a supervisor that would watch your every move. I could still hear the noise from the sewing machines when I got home, yet with time I got used to it.
As I started in the beginning of the cooler months, it was lovely to have your sewing machine placed close to where woman would iron, the place was very cold, with a wall mounted heating bar here and there, we all wore lots of woolly jumpers and coats, sometimes we wore gloves but that was too difficult to handle the garments.
The summers were the pits, really unbearable, the place was like an oven, they placed a few standing fans here and there but that did not help with the oppressive heat, I was exhausted by the time I got home.
I began working there when I was 15 years old. The starting pay was 3 pound 2 shillings. I don't know if I could live on that, as I still lived at home. I did enjoy the company of many girls, and got the grip of the English language. I'm still in touch with a few of them. I do know that with years of sewing, some and myself suffer from RSI in our arms from constantly moving heavy garments on the sewing machine as we worked, also loss of hearing. Today we have unions, thank goodness. My biggest everlasting memory is the noise factor and the oppressive heat in those sheds.
And to think, Trudi was one of the privileged ones. Sadly, the people of Bangladesh are trapped in a vice- clothing production is one of its most profitable industries which allows for the poor working conditions to continue unchecked. The world is smaller now, globalisation has made the borders between us imaginary and we should feel an obligation for using a universal product which is made within a system with universal problems. Were it not for the sheer luck of circumstance and for being precisely where we are in the world it would still be continuing problem, but change took place, and now it needs to take place elsewhere.