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Workers Collapsing While Making Your H&M Clothes and Puma Shoes: Where's the Mass Outcry?

70 percent of the clothing made in Cambodia is sold in the United States--where's the Foxconn-style outrage over atrocious conditions for garment workers?

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More important, where are those goods coming from? Are the increasing demands from 8.3 percent more retail outlets over last year being adequately met by 3.6 percent more workers?

Perhaps the real question is: how did Cambodian garment exports increase by 34 percent last year - with double-digit percentage increases the year before that and another double-digit jump expected this year, too - with  only 3,000 workers, with inadequate food, health care or safety facilities, falling to the ground from exhaustion?

Reframing the Debate

Without a drastic change to the way we think and talk about and therefore create policy for the fashion industry, the Titanic that is the international garment trade will just keep sinking, bringing more and more of the women who labor in the industry down with it. Slowly and surely.

The fainting incidents that took place in Cambodia, keep in mind, are the product of a best-case scenario in the current global fashion trade. Still recovering from the destruction of resources caused by American bombings, the Pol Pot era and civil war, Cambodia first got into the garment sector in the mid-1990s to take advantage of quota systems that offered developing nations a shot at exporting apparel to major markets. This was after the term "sweatshop" had become an indicator of unfair labor conditions, made popular by media exposés and student activists, so Cambodia established its entire industry with the intention of remaining "sweatshop-free." This meant workers' rights to organize were protected, monitoring facilities were brought in from the start - created by the International Labour Organization itself - and strong labor laws were established to fairly compensate employees in the emerging field.

Yet, the term "sweatshop" is not a legal one - it's a marketing one, or an anti-marketing one - so definitions remain hazy. ("No one knows what that is," a BFC monitor told me once when I asked him, naïvely, how many sweatshops he'd visited.) Most organizations and the US government, agree that a "sweatshop" is a factory in violation of one or more laws concerning: minimum wage and overtime, child labor, occupational safety and health, workers' compensation, rights to assembly or industry regulation.

That some Cambodian factories are in violation of one or more such laws, however, doesn't mean that the term "sweatshop" will change anything. (Some factories are not in technical violation of any laws, for example those that support workers' rights to organize, but that doesn't mean unions effectively protect labor. The same argument can be made about the minimum wage: Even factories that pay it, regularly and on time, with benefits etc., are still not paying enough to keep the workforce healthy.) I can't count how many stories smart editors have rejected on the Cambodian garment industry, claiming people are tired of reading about sweatshops. The term seems to lose all meaning entirely when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof takes "sweatshop" as another word for "factory" and calls for more of them in places like Cambodia, as he did in a 2009 column.

More important, here in the US, we hold our privilege of consumer choice as dear as democracy. We may advocate for boycotts of the brands that produce clothes in Cambodia, but an anti-marketing campaign would be a tactical error that would spell bad luck for the workers in those factories.

Consider this statement from the GMAC's Ken Loo in the Phnom Penh Post on February 7: "Some buyers are reluctant to come to Cambodia due to the high level of media coverage." The Post summarized his remarks thus: "The increase in media coverage of Cambodian garment factories since a spate of mass fainting incidents last year roused reporters' interest and threatened to revive the 'sweatshop' label."

 
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