I Joined the March4Women after reading an inspiring issue of the free Stylist magazine. The entire issue No 402 was devoted to celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Britain’s women securing voting rights, and a very fine anniversary edition it was. If you can still get a copy, I heartily recommend you do so. It’s worth it for the graphics alone. It was the first time I had ever actually read the mag, believing it to be aimed primarily at white middle-class women with plenty of disposable income at their command. In fact, at first glance The Stylist comes across as little more than an advertising medium for the fashion and beauty industry rather than an attempt at serious journalism.
Perhaps I’ve done the magazine an injustice because their tribute to the suffragettes was definitely more than just tokenism. It had some real substance. If I had one criticism, it was that the journalists focused too much on the western world, despite one excellent piece on Bhikaji Cama’s role in the suffragette movement, choosing to largely ignore the billions of women still struggling word-wide for even the most basic of human rights. And that brings me to the march itself.
The march was organised by a charity called Care International, and you could tell immediately by their selection of speakers at the official rally at Trafalgar Square that this was indeed an organisation with a clear and conscious international dimension. In contrast to The Stylist magazine, this was an organisation that was working amongst some of the most desperate and marginalised women on the planet. I suspect that all women, no matter what their material circumstances, suffer many and varied forms of discrimination, some overt, others more insidious. But the women and girls of the developing world clearly suffer such brutal forms of discrimination at the hands of a vicious global patriarchy, that it renders them, as John Lennon so poignantly put it,the niggers of the world.
The highlight amongst so many highlights at the rally came in the form of a chilling speech by a factory worker activist from Bangladesh by the name of Nazma Akter. This was a woman, like so many millions of women, forced into factory servitude at the age of eleven and made to slave long, long hours in appalling conditions for the princely sum of two dollars a month. And she reminded her well-fed audience in uncompromising terms, that the clothes they were wearing were most likely produced in a sweat-shop very similar to the one she had been forced to work in. I looked down at my Nike Air trainers and uncomfortably adjusted my warm adidas woollen hat, and I shuddered with shame. The truth is abundantly clear. Every time we shop at Primark, Sports Direct or a thousand other high street stores, we become complicit in a global slave trade that cruelly exploits third world workers and doubly so, women workers.
It is somewhat unfashionable to speak of the proletariat these days. In the developed world of late- capitalism, the emphasis has shifted to identity politics. Class politics seems so yesterday. But the proletariat does still exist, and it exists in larger numbers than in any time in capitalism’s five hundred-year history. In the workshops of the world, in Asia, in Africa and in Latin America, the proletariat toils night and day to satisfy the corporate lust for profit and our insatiable demand for consumer goods. The conditions to which they labour are every bit as horrendous as those of nineteenth century Britain, but without doubt the conditions for women are significantly worse. They suffer as low paid workers, but they also suffer further abuse simply because they are women. Even the embryonic unions, such as they are, tend to ignore their plight. Either these women self-organise at great risk to themselves, or they must succumb to their fate in the dark satanic mills of 21st century global capitalism.
Nazma Akter brought this reality home to us, even if it were just for a few moments. The question then arises; how can we make their struggle our struggle in deeds rather than in cheap and easy platitudes? The answer probably lies in those equally old-fashioned institutions called Trades Unions. We have all watched as our once powerful unions have been neutered one by one. And in one sense it has been a self-inflicted neutering. All too often, our unions have acted in self-interest, failing to organise in solidarity with other workers. In this respect, the British miner’s strike was and is the pivotal turning point. The miners put their lives on the line and the rest of the union movement stood passively on the sidelines. Now, with the exception of the RMT, the British union movement is largely a busted flush.
Only if the old unions adopt an internationalist approach, not only across Europe but across all continents, can this form of working class organisation become relevant again. The women in Bangladesh must become the concern of Unison and Unite and the GMB both out of international solidarity and their own self-interest. Capital has gone global and labour organisation must reflect that reality. If we don’t confront capital simultaneously at every point on the planet, it will simply relocate to the regions it can most readily exploit. If we continue to organise on a national basis, we will be complicit in a race to the bottom. In Brexit Britain that is precisely what is happening.
Marx warned us that capital will always move to the highest point of return. It will navigate around any and all national legislation. It will play off one country against another and it will play off one industry against another. And in the final instance it will always and everywhere seek to pit men against women in the ultimate game of divide and rule. I suspect Nazma Akter understands all this perfectly. What a pity that our once formidable and heroic trades unions still don’t seem to get it.