No Sweat: Understanding the Labor Behind the Labels & Choosing Sweat-Free Fashion

This post is by contributing blogger Daniella Svoboda Schmidt, an experienced public school master teacher, a graduate of our M.Ed. program, and a humane educator specializing in engaging others in the positive power of food citizenship through The Thinkatarian Food Club. She currently lives in Germany with her husband and son.

End of the season sale! Buy one, get one free! An additional 40% off of all clearance prices! In my former shopaholic days, signs like these made my heart flutter as I twirled into the store to see what new clothes I would be adding to my already bountiful wardrobe. My recent blog posts have focused on my journey into becoming a conscious consumer and discovering the secret past of my clothing, through the investigation of the entire lifecycle of a simple cotton t-shirt from cotton plant seedling to the stinky landfill.

Many people pay top dollar at the beginning of the season for the latest fashions. But who pays the cost if I was buying the item on clearance? Certainly I was not footing the bill, bouncing out of the store with bags of clothes at drastic discounts. I began to wonder—how can these well-known retailers afford to sell name brand goods at bargain basement prices and still be profitable? Who truly pays the cost of cheap clothes? My search began with a trip to a far away and exotic place . . . my closet.

Made in India. Made in China. Made in the Philippines, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Pakistan read the labels of my clothing. Though my clothes ended up in a department store or mall in the middle of Generica, USA, they certainly did not begin there. What was the benefit of making clothes in these countries when they were to be sold eventually in the U.S.?  Please stop reading for a moment and take a little trip through your closet—where was the majority of your clothing made?

After my jaunt through my wardrobe, I began to think about the unseen people working in the clothing industry. How could name brand stores afford to sell top quality clothing at a pittance?  Razia, and many other women, men, and children (yes, children) working in sweatshops knew the answer.

Here is Razia’s Story:

Lahore, Pakistan

Razia works in the finishing department of Venus Knitwear, with 15 other women and five men. The supervisor is male.  The company is in Lahore and exports T-shirts and jeans to the USA and UK.  In all, 500 women work in this factory, aged between 14 and 30.

She has been working there three years, but is still a temporary worker.  She starts work at 7:00 am and finishes at 10 to 11 pm.  She has no fixed working hours and often has no idea when she will be back to home. “We go home,” she explains, “when the boss allows us to. We work long hours and are not paid overtime. Our male supervisor harasses young women workers: he makes unwelcome remarks and threatens to keep their wages if they refuse to sleep with him. If you refuse to do overtime, you are sacked. We are not allowed to talk to each other.”

 In her factory, very few women are married and those who are do not get maternity leave. Razia is not getting equal wage for equal work. There is no separate toilet for women and no place to eat.  Razia sits on the floor at lunchtime to eat the food she has brought from home. There is no fixed time for tea breaks – sometimes the supervisor allows one, sometimes not.

Razia is paid piece rate. She works in dim light and because of this gets headaches and eye problems. There is no proper ventilation system and because of this, workers suffer from asthma and respiratory problems. Razia earns RS. 1200 per month (US $24 or 18 Euros). The employer makes workers sign a blank piece of paper once they have been given their wages.

There is no union at the factory:  should a worker try to form a union, he or she will be dismissed at once.

(Excerpted from "Worker case studies: life in garment factories" and based upon the Research in Subcontracting Chains in the Pakistani Garment Industry, Working Women Organisation, 2003).

So now I see how reputable clothing retailers make profits, even on deeply discounted items.  Through learning about Razia’s work life and what she endures daily to receive a mere $24 or 18 Euro a month, I now understand how my clothing got to be so cheap. But, at what cost? Razia, and other garment workers pay the price through being overworked, getting no overtime or time off, having no job security, working in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, and being harassed and intimidated; and they have no chance to better their working conditions because unionizing would mean instant dismissal. To learn more about how most clothes are produced, check out: Green America's Guide to Ending Sweatshops or reports from the Institute for Global Labour & Human Rights

This mini-series produced by BBC is a fantastic look at what fashionistas in London experienced when they traveled to India to see how their clothes are produced. This was a bit of guilt-free reality TV that actually deals with reality—it is amazingly educational, short, and still fun to watch, as these hipsters settled into becoming part of the labor force that churns out their High Street fashions. And spend some time in a virtual sweatshop making athletic shoes, with this online game.

Cheap clothes come at the high price of extreme exploitation of other human beings. But how can you and I effectively support Razia and other garment workers and opt out of sweatshop produced clothing? We can vote with our dollars by boycotting and buycotting!  Green America suggests seven tips to actively support fair working conditions and/or opt out of supporting sweatshop-produced goods: 
  1. Demand sweatshop-free products where you shop.
  2. Buy union-made, local, and secondhand.
  3. Buy Fair Trade.
  4. Ask questions if you are not sure if a company uses ethical business practices.
  5. Mobilize in at your workplace, school, or in your community.
  6. Use shareholder clout.
  7. Educate others.
And you can take other actions, such as writing letters and signing petitions to to end unfair labor conditions.

My heart still skips a beat when I see end of the season clearance signs, but for a different reason. It skips a beat for Razia—clearly, she and others like her are still hard at work. Thinking about her grinding daily toil and her powerlessness to change her situation reminds me how easy it is for me to exercise my personal clout. And now that I understand more about the labor behind the labels, it is no sweat for me to vote with my money for sweat-free fashion.

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