Put on a Hippy Face

News & Politics

If this summer's fashion trends can tell us anything, it's that the world is definitely getting smaller. Standing on Broadway in fashion-crazy lower Manhattan, the scene on the street is more Global Village than Greenwich Village: women running in and out of stores in saris and Native-American-inspired footwear, vendors selling African-style wooden beaded jewelry, and paisley-clad hipsters each trying to look more citizen-of-the-world than the next.

The sights on Broadway in Manhattan are the same as in malls and downtowns across the country. Everywhere, young women are donning batik skirts and beaded slippers as encouraged by the high-fashion architects of this summer's big trend: bohemian chic. Flip through a trendy young women's catalogue, and you'll see gauzy, embroidered, multi-colored garments accompanied by these taglines: "ethnic-inspired" (Delia's), "boho" and "vintage" (Alloy), "eastern paisley" and "seriously loose and super-flowy" (Urban Outfitters).

The only problem is that the ethnic patchwork is contrived. Young women who have never traveled out of their zip code are dressing like they just came back from a whirlwind tour of Nairobi, Prague and the Khyber Pass. While some girls really did get that embroidered blouse in the former Soviet bloc, most of them have patched together their summer wardrobes at the Gap, Urban Outfitters, or United Colors of Benneton. And most of them have done so in blissful -- or willful -- ignorance of where their clothing actually came from.

Most people are at least vaguely aware that much of our clothing is produced in conditions antithetical to the values of "one world" bohemianism. Aside from the "Made In ___" tag that identifies its country of origin, it's impossible to tell just by looking at a piece of clothing whether it was manufactured by sweatshop workers. But odds are that it was.

According to a report [pdf] by Behind the Label, an initiative of the union UNITE HERE, roughly 80 percent of garment workers making clothes for U.S. retailers are working in conditions that violate our own domestic labor laws, as set forth by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). That's over two million people worldwide, disproportionately women and young people under 18.

When people hear the word "sweatshop," they often think of child labor, long hours, and insufficient pay. They may also be aware that sweatshops are often overcrowded, poorly ventilated, and difficult to escape from in the event of a fire. In many sweatshops, managers force female workers to have pregnancy tests and fire employees who try to organize unions. In extreme cases, workers are forced to sign contracts pledging to never marry, have children, ask for a raise, or participate in religious or political activities.

Free-market economists and spokespeople for big business do their best to portray sweatshop workers as grateful for any work at all, and applaud themselves and each other for their humanitarianism. Urban Outfitters founder and President Richard Hayne, who acknowledges that the company and its affiliates -- Anthropologie and Free People -- use non-union overseas sewing shops to make their ueber-trendy clothing lines, has argued that some of the women sewing clothes for him in India had no other potential source of income aside from "selling their bodies." When asked why workers can't be paid more for their labor, the response is always that higher wages would necessarily lead to layoffs and skyrocketing consumer prices.

But the executives overseeing the abuses take home salaries amounting to thousands of times more than the wages paid to the factory workers. Sweatshop Watch reported recently that workers making Levi's jeans in Saipan (a U.S. territory in the Pacific) earned $3.05 per hour, while Levi's CEO Philip Marineau was compensated to the tune of $11,971 per hour -- almost 15 times what he was paid in 2001. Even by simply freezing Marineau's salary at its 2001 levels, Levi's could have given each of the 7,500 workers in Saipan earning minimum wage a 50 per cent raise.

This tremendous imbalance is not uncommon. A BBC special report on Gap found that 12-year-olds making Gap clothes in Cambodia worked seven days a week and earned 12 cents an hour. Meanwhile, Gap CEO Millard Drexler was paid $8 million a year, as well as $12 million in stock options. Abercrombie & Fitch garment workers in Saipan earned $3.05 in 1999, while CEO Michael Jeffries was paid a salary of $4 million. In that same year the company was slapped with a lawsuit alleging responsibility for sweatshop conditions, including locked fire exits, rat-infested barracks, contaminated water, and hundreds of other violations of OSHA's labor regulations. These findings and more are outlined in the Behind the Label report [pdf].

Made in the U.S.A.

Even in the land of opportunity, workers are also vulnerable to human rights abuses. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, roughly two-thirds of clothing factories in both Los Angeles and New York systematically violate minimum wage and overtime laws. Unregistered sweatshops in Los Angeles and San Francisco have produced clothing sold by J. Crew, bebe, Montgomery Ward's, and a host of other retailers. Even American Apparel, a company that aggressively markets a sweat-free, worker-friendly image, has been accused of skimping on employee benefits and making it difficult for workers to unionize.

But the teenagers who frequent America's shopping malls are more likely to hear Lindsay Lohan's thoughts on human rights abuses than those of their own government. In June, a starry-eyed Lohan was among the celebrities at the controversial opening of a new De Beers store in New York, gushing to the press that she would love to wear one of the company's famous diamonds. Members of the group Survival International and feminist icon Gloria Steinem temporarily overshadowed the glitterati with their allegations that De Beers is causing "cultural genocide" in Botswana by forcing the Gana and Gwi bushmen off of their diamond-rich lands. When a reporter asked Lohan for her opinion on the matter, she replied: "I don't get involved in any drama."

Lohan's answer is indicative of a dangerous attitude toward labor abuse: It's there, but it's not my business. The problem is not that people are buying into the boho chic trend; after all, nearly everything we buy is a potential sweatshop product. The problem is that they are constantly encouraged by corporate America to do so without any sense of irony, obligation, or even concern.

Fortunately, most Americans recognize the problem and are willing to use their purchasing power to fix it. In a poll conducted by Marymount University, 85 percent of respondents said they would pay more for a piece of clothing if they could be sure it wasn't made in a sweatshop. A number of organizations provide lists of sweat-free retailers that are union-run or worker collectives.

However, there is no universal sweat-free seal of approval that companies can earn, and due to the near complete saturation of our consumer culture in sweatshop goods, a general boycott is nearly impossible. A boycott could also end up hurting workers who don't have the power to collectively demand fair wages and conditions. Such has been the case both in U.S. sweatshops and abroad, where lawsuits and increased public scrutiny have, in the past, caused major companies to simply abandon their factories rather than improve conditions there.

One of the most successful examples of domestic anti-sweatshop action is the student movement in the United States, represented by the group United Students Against Sweatshops. At schools across the country, student activists have forced their school administrations -- major consumers who purchase everything from sports uniforms to vending machines -- to revisit their investment and purchasing policies and adopt fair labor and transparency standards.

The British anti-sweatshop group No Sweat and other organizations fighting for workplace justice encourage people to help workers lead their own fight for better wages and standards. They recommend supporting unions and other organizations helping workers organize, contacting a local or major retailer and letting them know you're looking into their labor practices, or finding some other concerned individuals and putting your heads together. Then you can feel like a global citizen no matter what you're wearing.

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