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The modern-day sweatshop system

By May 10, 2013June 6th, 2023No Comments

Sunday 28th April 2013

Sweatshop or sweat factory, interestingly, are terms that have nothing to do with sweater and little with shop or factory. They are negatively connoted terms describing working conditions. Sweatshops were work conditions that were unacceptably difficult and dangerous. Workers worked long hours for low pay and had no laws to protect them or, if laws existed, they were ignored.

And so, you’ll ask, these funny Whites, how and why did they hatch up such a term, where no sweater was concerned? But, as one man once intimated to me, these people always have reasons for their actions.

In London, between 1830 and 1850 there was a specific type of workshop that had an employee who acted as a middleman between an employer and workers. The middleman was known as the sweater and he directed workers in garment making. Because the workers were folk who had flocked to the city for a precious pound sterling, they were prepared to work under the most arduous conditions. This system of subcontracting the tailoring to small companies by big tailoring companies was called the sweatshop system.

And so, reasons thee, what is it with Iyigihanga, that he should go off at a tangent on matters that concerned others? In truth, though, I am not going off anywhere. If these conditions don’t concern you, they concerned your parents at one time. Or, if your parents were also born the other day – the other day being after 1962, after Rwanda attained her independence – they concerned their parents.

We who were not born the other day, for instance, know Gapita. Gapita was a Rwandan (or any other colonised person) charged with making sure that you did the white man’s bidding. And when I say the white man’s bidding, I am not talking about kid-glove work. I am talking about forced labour, where you worked hard for no pay. It could be work on the white man’s plantation, in his mines, on his roads (no Rwandan had a car then) or any other such work. When you were caught not doing your work, you were given strokes of the cane that seared through your bottom. That cane was a piece of hippo hide known as kiboko.

You were seen to be idle and disorderly if you engaged in conversation, in yawning, in looking distracted or if, for instance, you went for a short call that proved to be long. Whatever happened, if Gapita considered you idle, he shouted: “Chini!” (Kiswahili for ‘down’). And, instantly, you peeled off your loin cloth – shorts were for chiefs and long trousers were not allowed for ‘indigènes’, natives. Anyway, you went ahead to bare your bottom and throw yourself to the ground, face down. This happened in less than a second, after which Gapita began to administer kiboko until your bottom was torn into bloody shreds. Then it was back to work.

Mind you, if Gapita addressed you in Kinyarwanda and not the fearsome language of Kiswahili, it was kiboko for him, too. It was the same if he gave you less strokes of the cane than were prescribed and the white man got wind of it.

The white man himself did not do the caning of Gapita, of course. He was a thinker and could not involve himself in manual work. It was done by his aide, who was usually his cook and who spoke Kiswahili. The highest level a native could reach was that of chief, to oversee his fellow natives, if he spoke some smattering of French. For knowing that little French, a chief was an “evolué” (evolved from the apes, I suppose!) and his turn for kiboko was usually when he had not administered it to his charges.

But, you’ll reason, this forced labour did not involve garment making like the sweatshop system. However, when you think of the gruelling conditions involved in both, you’ll admit the two are related. Still, the worst thing is that, while here in Rwanda you’ve done away with the white man’s forced labour, in this day and age there are some in parts of the world who are enforcing the sweatshop system on their own people.

For example, on 24th last month, we all received news of a house in Bangladesh which buckled and killed hundreds. So far, the death toll has surpassed 1000 and those injured are in their hundreds of thousands. And it was not as if people didn’t know the building would collapse. It had for long shown cracks and it was known to be eight floors when originally it’d been designed for only five. Moreover, a bank in the same building had evacuated its employees and workers in shops were out, on strike.

The factory employers forced their workers to keep working even after warnings of the likelihood of this collapse. There never was a worse sweatshop system, if you ask me. Who is responsible for this catastrophe if not the whole of the Bangladeshi leadership?

You should praise your stars that this land has stringent laws which nobody dare violate.

For info, there is no mention of ‘woman’ in colonial Rwanda because then a woman’s place was strictly in the kitchen. It was as well that those stringent laws hadn’t seen light of day!

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