How The Global Garment Industry Affects Workers In the Developing World

Aug 2, 2013

In April, more than 1,100 workers died and thousands more were injured when a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh. The deadliest garment industry disaster in history focused attention on the working conditions in clothing factories across the developing world.

Journalist Kelsey Timmerman traveled to Honduras, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and China to write about the garment industry. His book Where Am I Wearing: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes describes the lives of the individuals he met and the effects the globalized market has had on them.

Timmerman says the problem with free trade is that workers’ rights are forgotten as companies compete to produce as much as possible for the least amount of money.

“Levi’s source from 13 different factories in Cambodia and source from like 35 different countries,” Timmerman says. “So if Cambodia raises their minimum wage, they could just go to another country, another factory. And you're seeing this in Honduras right now where the average garment worker in Honduras, by the definition in Honduras, lives in poverty. But all the garment jobs are leaving to go the Nicaragua and El Salvador because the global economy believes they are paid too much.”

But focusing on the divide between free trade and fair trade misses the real issue. The bigger problem in developing countries is a lack of economic opportunity. Arifa, a single mother Timmerman met in Bangladesh, works for 24 dollars per month to support her three children because it is her only option.

“Things like sweatshops and child labor and bad working conditions and labor wrongs aren't the problem,” Timmerman says. “The problem is poverty.”

The garment industry has the power fight poverty directly. Timmerman says fair trade companies like Alta Gracia, prAna, and Sole Rebels pay their workers a living wage and help them improve their communities.

Timmerman encourages consumers to learn about the people who make their clothes and to choose companies who support their workers.

“Every day wear one thing that you know the story of,” Timmerman says. “If you can just find that one thing a day that you have that connection with, that's a great way to start.”


SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Kelsey Timmerman, welcome to World Views.                                      

TIMMERMAN: Thanks for having me here.

GRILLOT: So tell me about this book Where am I Wearing. You decided to study where your clothes come from. Why?

TIMMERMAN: Yeah. So it kind of started off as an excuse to travel. I'm not going to lie.

GRILLOT: Well that's a good excuse, I'd say.

TIMMERMAN: Yeah. So I had this t-shirt, maybe you remember the show Fantasy Island. It had Tattoo. And on this t-shirt it said "Come with me to my tropical paradise." And at this point in my life, I graduated from college with a degree in anthropology and I got a job as a scuba diving instructor and I would earn money and I'd go travel and come back with stories and write stories and contribute them to different magazines and newspapers and things like that. So I didn't need much of an excuse to go anywhere because I had that t-shirt. And, you know, I thought "Tattoo, where is this tropical paradise of which you speak? I'm going to check the tag and wherever it was made, I'm going to go there." So I checked the tag and it said made in Honduras. So off I went to Honduras. And I went jungle hiking, almost got killed by a fer de lance snake, went island exploring, and scuba diving. Had adventures that I was looking for. But then I thought, you know, I came here because this t-shirt was made here. So at least I should go to the factory where it was made and try to meet someone who made it. And I did. Okay, I show up and I'm wearing this shirt and I'm like, "Hey, can I have a tour of your factory? This shirt was made here, now I'm here, whole full circle kind of thing." And they were like, "No. You, uh, can't have a tour of the factory." So I waited to the side of the factory for the workers to be let out. And then I met a worker by the name of Amilcar. And I had a lot of questions for him, you know, back from my sociology classes back in college. And you hear things about sweatshops and child labor and bad working conditions and bad pay, and here's what I learned about him. I learned he was 25, he lived with his parents, he likes to play soccer. I didn't ask those questions because I think deep down I didn't really want to know the answers. I left, went on my merry way, and then it kind of became an obsession for me. Like where stuff comes from and what is life actually like for the people who make our clothes. So then I went to Bangladesh where my boxers were made and my All-American Levi's blue jeans were made in Cambodia, my flip flops were made in China.

GRILLOT: So it sounds to me like, okay, you had the travel bug and then you get out there, but then you start meeting people. And you start learning their stories. And that's what then kind of perpetuated your interest, not so much because the t-shirt was made there but because of the people that you met that made your t-shirt, your flip flops, your boxers.

TIMMERMAN: Yes. For sure, I mean, that's kind of what always interests me most in travel. You know, first it could just be, like, I could sit on the beach and eat a pineapple, but then as time went by, you know, on my various travels, like I hung out with Nepalese monks once for like three weeks in their monastery and it was just a really cool cultural experience. And all the travel memories that meant the most to me, and as I started to write about these experiences, it was always the people that I could get the most interested in. So when you think about global issues and political issues and trade issues, for me, those things became much more important once I had a name, a face, a family, challenges that family faces, that stuff became much more interesting to me, how that stuff impacted their lives. Because I know that the new trade agreement could impact Amilcar's life. Or China getting rid of the Multifiber Agreement which would open the garment industry up to more made in China things without the tariffs, like that could really impact Arifa in Bangladesh. Like that stuff became much more interesting.

GRILLOT: It became much more real, it seems like.


GRILLOT: So you as a consumer, and looking at the products that you consume, all of a sudden you could see the human side of that product, right? So what is it that you really learned about the garment industry along the way from Honduras to Cambodia to China?

TIMMERMAN: So there're a lot of strong opinions about it. Some people believe it's the path to prosperity. The first rung of the global, you know, economic ladder that people have to climb up. And other people believe that people are being exploited. And I think one of the most important things I learned was that anyone on either side of those isn’t really seeing the complexity of what's happening. Things like sweatshops and child labor and bad working conditions and labor wrongs aren't the problem, those are the symptoms. The problem is poverty. The complete lack of opportunities that people have. So you can get a single mom of three children in Bangladesh named Arifa to work for $24 per month because she doesn't have a better option. So just that kind of complexity of what these jobs actually mean for people. I mean, they need an opportunity, but you can look at it like how much of an opportunity actually is it? And a lot of people point to it as it is the first rung in the global economic ladder. And they point to, you know, our country. We had the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 that killed 141 workers in New York and then workers wages go up, workers’ rights go up. The industry moved, and then better jobs moved in behind that. And they point to Taiwan and South Korea and maybe that was the model then, but now if you look at when I was in Cambodia looking at Levi's, they source from 13 different factories in Cambodia. And source from like 35 different countries. So if Cambodia raises their minimum wage, they could just go to another country, another factory. And you're seeing this in Honduras right now where the average garment worker in Honduras, by the definition in Honduras, lives in poverty. But all the garment jobs are leaving to go the Nicaragua and El Salvador because the global economy believes they are paid too much.

GRILLOT: So poverty is the real issue here, as you suggest. So is the solution to that, then, what we call a living wage? You mentioned the family in Bangladesh that is working for $24 per month. Is this a living wage? Is this what we're to expect? I suppose, what is it that's meant by that and how do we go about perpetuating living wages?

TIMMERMAN: That's a great question because so often you get people who put out numbers that say, "Oh, the poor people in this country make 'x' and, like, oh, that's appalling." But we need to put it in context. So to put it in context, on $24 a month to feed a family of four just rice for the month when food prices were higher just a year or two ago, it cost $15 per month. So there's not a lot left over if someone gets sick or to buy anything else or to pay the rent or send your kid to school. So, what is a solution? That's a really good question. And I think the garment industry could play a part in it. The apparel industry could play a part. Because it goes into some of the poorest places on our planet and it gives people opportunities. Now should they be better and could they be better? I think yes. But then where does change come from? Does it come from consumers? Does it come from the countries themselves? Does it come from the brands that source from these countries? Does it come from governments? And that's the question that no one really can answer.

GRILLOT: But is it a focus perhaps on fair trade that is at issue here? And if so, what exactly does that mean? How would you distinguish between what we know as free trade and what some suggest we should be focusing on, and that is fair trade? And how do industries play a role in perpetuating one or the other?

TIMMERMAN: Yeah, so there's a really good example of a living wage garment factory in the Dominican Republic called Alta Gracia. And they pay a living wage and the bookstores here have their t-shirts that this company produces. And it really makes a positive impact on the community. I'm wearing shoes right now that were made in Ethiopia. Again they pay a living wage. They send the workers' kids to school. They pay for the books, those costs. The company that I'm wearing right now is Sole Rebels. They only employ like a hundred people. But the average fertility rate in Ethiopia is like six. So you could say those hundred jobs support six children, let's say. That's 600 kids. It's more likely that those kids will go to school, that their kids' kids will go to school, and you have just a hundred good jobs that end up having just this huge impact. You think of a couple generations, and you're reaching tens of thousands and ultimately hundreds of thousands of people just from a good job. So I'd say the difference between free trade, which is just opening up our borders and working with more different countries and sourcing from different countries...

GRILLOT: Where you try to get the most product for the least cost, right? Is that the main distinction? In free trade you're trying to buy the most for the least so you're not necessarily concerned about paying a living wage to those who produce your goods?

TIMMERMAN: I don't necessarily think that free trade has to be a bad thing. You know, people often talk about free and fair trade. Why can't we source from different places and pay them in a fashion that does help them climb the global economic ladder to get them out of poverty? One of the things that the garment industry does that is really important is it employs women. And if you give a woman a wage she spends 90 percent of it reinvested in her family. If you give a man a wage, he spends 30 to 40 percent of it reinvested in his family. And that has a huge impact. If a woman has seven years of education or more, she'll wait to have children four years later in life and have 2.2 fewer children. So if you're a single mom in Bangladesh and earn $24 a month or whatever, you divide it between five kids instead of seven kids and those kids have a much better shot.

GRILLOT: So it isn't a choice then between one and the other, free trade or fair trade. It's a matter of trying to find these industries where they're turning a profit, but they're doing so in such a way that compensates producers, laborers, workers, some sort of fair and living wage.

TIMMERMAN: Yeah, it's not always the easiest thing for companies to do because there're a lot of middle men between producer and consumer and even between brand and factory. And most of the brands like Levi's, there's no such thing as a Levi's factory anymore. They do business with multiple companies around the world. The factory I visited in Cambodia, they were a Taiwanese-owned company, Taiwanese management, Cambodian workers, making blue jeans for Europeans and Americans. So there's all this removal from it. And you can go in to inspect these factories and there have been reports of the factory owners putting, like, child laborers on the roof of the building while the inspectors are going through, or keeping different sets of books, so it's not always the easiest thing for companies. But there is this movement in apparel now on a small level that you're getting companies like prAna that are starting to source actually fair trade t-shirt from India. And Sole Rebels, as I mentioned, Alta Gracia pays a living wage. So that's on a smaller level. Now there's an organization called Fair Trade USA and they set certain standards that have to be met for the environment and for the workers. There's also an aspect of a social premium. So if for instance in coffee, if the farmers sell a pound of coffee, they get 20 cents sent back to them in the fair trade premium and they get to vote on what to do with that. They could build a school, they could build a road, the community votes. And that is fair trade.

GRILLOT: So it's a much broader issue than just wages. It has to do with safety and the environment and ownership, basically of the production of these goods.


GRILLOT: So if you're going to speak to a group of consumers like me and those who are listening, what is it that you're suggesting that we do? What is it that we should learn from your book Where Am I Wearing and what should we do about it?

TIMMERMAN: I am not a big fashionista by any means. It's so funny that I ended up writing a book about clothes because I'm happy in t-shirts and shorts and I don't go shopping all that often. But there are things that we can do, and I actually enjoy shopping more now. Not like going to the mall because you can't really shop with your ethics a ton. In the mall there are different smaller things you can do, like I think you're better off to shop at a major label like The Gap than you are to go to the big department stores and buy their off brand whatever because The Gap has been hit over the years. You know, reports have come out about different factories and they've made changes and things like that. But I encourage consumers to just every day wear one thing that you know the story of that item. And ultimately, I think this is something that we long for. Something that we're missing in our culture where when my grandfather was growing up you knew the butcher, the baker, the garment maker, and today we don't have that connection with our stuff. There's a really good example of this. There was a guy in England that ordered a new iPhone and it showed up and he was so excited to open it, and he opens it up and he sees a photo in his phone already. And it's a picture of a worker at the Chinese factory, the FoxConn factory in China that's made a lot of news over the past few years, giving a peace sign. And he posted that on the website and it blew up. You know, hundreds of comments. And the media picked it up, the Washington Post, CNN, people around the world wanted to know “Who was iPhone girl?”. They went to the factory to try to find iPhone girl, and they were like, you know, "iPhone girl just wants to be left alone and make iPhones in peace." And that's all the further that went. But I think what it proves is that when we see iPhone girl and we see that there's a person that actually made our phone, and she has a sparkle personality in her eye, and she's smiling, and she's giving the peace sign, and she's wearing a crooked hat, we actually care about that person. So if you can just find that one thing a day that you kind of have that connection with, that's a great way to start. Now with clothing that's tough. There are not a lot of options out there. There's a lot more with food.

GRILLOT: And that's your next project, right? Where Am I Eating? And so in the few seconds we have left, tell us a little about what we can expect from this project in the coming months.

TIMMERMAN: Yeah, so it comes out Earth Day, so April 22 is the official release. And so when I was doing Where Am I Wearing? All the workers I met were former farmers or their families still worked on the farm. So I was like, "So what's happening on the farm?" So I really wanted to go and find out what was happening on the farm. So I went to Costa Rica where I worked alongside banana workers. I went to Colombia where I met some of the farmers who grow Starbucks coffee and I met some of the fair trade farmers as well. I went to Nicaragua for these divers who hand-catch lobsters on scuba. And I went to China where a lot of our apple juice comes from. 75 percent of our apple juice concentrate comes from China. And I went to Ivory Coast where we get a lot of our cocoa from for our chocolate.

GRILLOT: And so we learn from that story, then, a lot of the same basic lessons. That making visible those who produce our goods is a good thing to do.

TIMMERMAN: Yeah, just trying to have a connection with them and learn about their lives and learn from them as well. I think there's a lot to learn. Some of the communities I go to, I see that they might have a poverty of resources, but they have a wealth of community. And I come back to my, I live in Indiana, and I come back to my own community and sometimes I see a wealth of resources, but a poverty of community. So I think it's not just about getting to know them, but getting to learn from them as well, their lifestyle. Because so few of us are farmers anymore. Only one percent of Americans are farmers now. And, you know, when my grandpa was a farmer it was 30 percent. So I think we've lost touch with a lot of that.

GRILLOT: So another way to promote global awareness. Alright, thank you so much Kelsey Timmerman for joining us today on World Views. Very interesting story.

TIMMERMAN: Thank you.

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