Blog Piece for www.HouseofBeth.com
Slaves to Fashion
As I walk around the area of Sukhumvit in Bangkok, I am completely overwhelmed by the amount of shopping malls that have sprung up left right and centre in the last few years, bursting with more shops, more restaurants, more cinemas, and more beauty salons that you could ever want or need. Near the BTS Sky Train station Siam, there are three gigantic malls and a night market covering a vast square and numerous streets around. And two more malls are currently being built next door. Shopping is on another level in Bangkok – from airport themed malls like Terminal 21, to the weekend Chatuchak market with over 5000 stalls, to MBK with its 7 floors each individually devoted to fake clothes, bags, electronics, makeup etc. – not forgetting the IMAX cinema! It is a shopaholic’s paradise. But as I thumb through some hand-made silk scarves I can’t help but wonder – where on earth do all these clothes come from?
The vast majority come from sweatshops. Beneath the ethereal shopping mall lights lies a dark underworld of forced labour, mostly carried out by trafficked women and children. Thailand is one of the biggest exporters of clothing in the world. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that on average, sweatshops employ 61% of children in Thailand; children will work for less money, they have smaller, more nimble fingers, and are less likely to complain about poor working conditions. Many of these children are trafficked in from neighbouring countries like Cambodia, and others must work to provide for the family. Most garment workers are women, the vast majority of them young women in their teens or twenties who have left their homes for the first time so that they can earn money to send back to their families. Millions of workers, mostly women, toil in tens of thousands of sweatshops around the world. Sweatshop awareness organisations estimate that 85% of sweatshop workers are young women between the ages of 15-25.
One could argue that sweatshops enable women and children with a safer way to make money, rather than resorting to prostitution or working in a sex club. Defenders of sweatshops often bring up the fact that sweatshops at least give people jobs they wouldn't have had otherwise. However, the working conditions of sweatshops are so unbearable, they rarely improve economic situation of their employees. The trafficking of women as means of cheap labour often includes debt bondage; these women undergo slavery-like conditions, and are forced to work without wages until they have repaid inflated "debts" and "fees". Since sweatshop workers are paid less than their daily expenses, it is almost impossible to save any money to improve their lives. They are trapped in a cycle of exploitation.
Nicholas D. Kristof (in his article titled In Cambodia, Sweatshops are a Dream) talks to Pim Srey Rath, a 19-year-old girl from Phnom Penh, while she scavenges on the city's huge toxic waste dump. She told him she would love to get a job in a clothes factory - ‘at least that work is in the shade.’ Kristof spoke to another woman, Vath Sam Oeun and her ten-year-old son. She hopes he will grow up to get a ‘safe’ factory job as she has seen other children run over by rubbish trucks. Her son has not ever been to a doctor or dentist. He last had a proper bath when he was two. In her eyes a sweatshop job would be wonderful and less dangerous for his future.
There is no single definition of what a sweatshop is. The US Department of Labour defines a sweatshop as a factory that violates two or more labour laws, such as those pertaining to wages and benefits, child labour or working hours. In general, a sweatshop can be described as a workplace where workers are subject to extreme exploitation, (including the absence of a living wage or benefits) poor working conditions, and arbitrary discipline, such as verbal, physical and sexual abuse. To keep labour costs low, shop owners usually pay workers a “piece rate” i.e. workers do not get paid by the hour. Rather, their wage is based on the number of items - shirts, shoes, socks -they complete in a shift. If workers hope to earn a decent income, they have to work hard, and they have to work long. Basically, they have to sweat. Around the world, garment workers spend dozens upon dozens of hours a week at their sewing machines to make the clothes and shoes that eventually end up on retailers’ shelves. And when workers try to defend their interests, assert their dignity, and reclaim some of their efforts are invariably repressed. In country after country, the stories are hauntingly similar.
Despite international and domestic human rights agreements, many countries fail to protect the rights of their workers, and often have a hand in their exploitation. Many Western companies are profiting from the abuse of migrant women workers detailed in this report. High street brands such as Adidas, Nike, Reebok and Levi-Strauss sell goods produced in Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia, while low labour costs have made Cambodia a key source of cheap clothing for stores such as Gap, Zara, and H&M.
But how can we solve this problem? I personally agree with Kristof, that sweatshops are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off a potential route out of poverty. However, I also firmly believe that garment companies must disclose the treatment and pay of workers and how and where products were made. This must be monitored by in-country labour organisations to protect workers and their jobs, including paying for education for child workers found in factories and paying parents a living wage.
At House of Beth, we pride ourselves on selling only pre-loved, vintage and, ethically produced clothing.