Fiery Threads

Some twenty years ago, early in my career recording sound for documentary film, I traveled to Honduras and El Salvador as part of a team working to expose the slave-like conditions suffered by the workers who make the billions of garments that Americans consume every year. What we found was that the typical individual sitting behind a sewing machine was an uneducated woman in her late teens or early twenties, often forced to take birth control against her will (to preserve the factory’s “investment” in having trained her), routinely subject to the predatory sexual advances of the floor managers. Many were naïve country girls lured to the city’s favela outskirts by the hope of a job. They were chosen because they were the most compliant and powerless segment of the population. Shifts were absurdly long, overtime routinely withheld. The pay was derisory, some tiny fraction of a dollar an hour; many women we clandestinely spoke with reported spending more than a quarter of each day’s earnings on bus fare and a meager lunch. The huge factories required no more investment than a few hundred sewing machines, some fluorescent tubing, and just enough fans to prevent the workers from fainting on the line in the tropical heat. Invariably, these maquilas were located inside the gates of a tax-advantaged “free trade zone,” protected by a private security force beholden only to the managers. Any demands for better conditions or wages were met with beatings, and promises from the garment contractors to simply pull up stakes and relocate in some even more inexpensive and unregulated country: Haiti, perhaps, or Nicaragua, or Bangladesh.

The stories emerging from this last country in the wake of the deadly Tazreen Fashions factory fire last weekend suggest that little has improved in the globalized world of garment manufacture. Scattered in the wreckage of the factory, among the charred bodies of the 112 dead, were scorched labels for Wal-Mart’s house jeanswear brand, “Faded Glory.” (An apt description of the American garment industry, demolished by “race to the bottom” outsourcing). The spokesmouths of the global retailing titan quickly announced that although Tazreen had once produced clothing for Wal-Mart, they were “no longer authorized” to do so. They blamed, and immediately fired, a supplier who they suggested had illicitly subcontracted with the unauthorized Tazreen, as if the conditions there were uniquely bad, or particularly dangerous. If you believe them, in today’s global marketplace, the world’s biggest companies don’t have the vaguest control over who is manufacturing their products, and under what conditions. Public relations departments and other corporate spin doctors have apparently become so sophisticated that huge international brands can manage to “stand behind their products” while simultaneously denying any knowledge of the savage conditions under which they are produced. Clearly the programs of “voluntary” self-policing put in place by many gigantic international brands are essentially window-dressing. The many contractors and sub-contractors operating their independent freelance factories from Dhaka to the Dominican Republic serve an important role: they obfuscate the supply chain. When something goes wrong, Wal-Mart, or Hanes, or the Gap, or any of countless others claim to be just another disappointed customer, (albeit a bulk customer) sorry to hear that some “renegade” factory didn’t live up to the exacting standards on the mimeographed form they had once held a photo-op to insist should be posted prominently on the wall near the exit doors.

I’m not the first to note the grisly similarity between the Tazreen inferno and the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist fire of Greenwich Village, New York, which killed 146 mostly young, mostly female, mostly uneducated recently immigrated seamstresses, just over a century ago, in March of 1911. That disaster was instrumental in the creation of the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union, and a catalyst for the discussion of worker’s rights in the United States. In an age when the clothes we wear are produced on the far side of the continent, in a distant country most people cannot locate on a map, it seems optimistic to hope that Tazreen might inspire the same kind of movement. Instead, companies must be held to account, by their customers. We need to change our ideas about what makes a brand worth wearing. 

On that trip to El Salvador twenty years ago, Charles Kernaghan, our guide from the National Labor Committee, estimated the cost of the labor spent on the production of a t-shirt at one half of one percent of its ultimate retail price. The cost of the fabric itself, and the shipping involved in offshore operations represented larger fractions, but most companies spend vastly more on advertising and marketing than on anything actually reflected in the quality of the shirt on your back. This means that doubling the pittance these exploited workers are paid would have a negligible effect on the in-store cost of most garments. Uh, I don't know about you, but I'd be okay with that. 

Photos from my own wardrobe.