For most people in the United States, the term slave to fashion relates to anindividuals desire always to be wearing the latest fashions from trendy clothing lines. Ina twist of supreme irony, the designation applies much more literally to the legions ofpoverty-stricken sweatshop laborers worldwide who toil away under miserable conditionsto produce the snappy apparel that Americans purchase in droves on a daily basis. Conditioned by a media that places considerable emphasis on possessing a stylishwardrobe, the majority of U. S. consumers are far too awash in their own culture — onethat is notorious for the value it places on material wealth — to be sensitive to the plightof these indigent foreigners.
And although the US medias fleeting scrutiny of sweatshopconditions five years ago did make the issue a greater part of the national consciousnessthan ever before, not enough people changed their buying habits as a result — or at leastnot enough to make a dent in the all-important bottom line of guilty corporations. Indeed,major American retailers of clothing and other apparel products have not changed thisdespotic element of their business practices in the least despite the negative publicity; infact, they continue to exploit laborers in foreign, mostly Third-World countries to analarming degree. The scope of the problem is such that hundreds of residents in a town as small andisolated as Santa Cruz have at some point been employed in sweatshops in impoverishednations. Santa Cruz resident Lorenzo Hernandez endured years of mistreatment at aDoall Enterprises factory in El Salvador before immigrating with his wife and two sons toSanta Cruz in September, 2000.
He now works full-time as a cook at Tony and AlbasPizza in Scotts Valley, and while he scarcely earns above minimum wage in his currentposition, it represents a substantial improvement to the abject conditions under which helabored for so many years in his home country. They treated us very badly (in ElSalvador), Hernandez said. I earned not enough to live on. My family could only buytwo shirts and pants (per person), and we were always hungry. I worked 14, 16 hours aday but still did not make enough.
Hernandez speaks and moves with the languor of a man who has spent his entireadult life working 80-hour weeks at physically-taxing jobs for domineering bosses whoaccepted nothing short of continuous effort without complaint and granted onlyoccasional, monitored bathroom breaks. Years of constant use have rendered his handscallused, decrepit, and scattered with patches of scars and discoloration. His face ismarkedly cragged, his eyes convey a vacant — though faintly sad — quality, and his blackscalp is blotted by manifold gray strands of hair. He is only 34, but his rugged featuresand frail demeanor strikingly approximate those of a typical 60-year-old. I think my jobshave caused me to lose lots of time with my family in the future, he said of his prospectsto live a long, fulfilling life.
A National Labor Committee study conducted earlier this year revealed that theaverage Salvadoran family (4. 3 people) requires an income of $287. 21 per month. Hernandez earned just . 60 cents an hour working for Doall — only 51% of a basic basketof goods necessary to sustain life in relative poverty. His wife, herself a portrait offragility, worked odd jobs for meager wages to supplement the family income and ensureits survival.
Hernandez story is a familiar one not only to those in his native country, but topeople in poor nations worldwide, some of whom face conditions even more desperatethan those endured by many Salvadorans. For instance, wages in Indonesia and Burmahave dropped to as low as what corresponds to nine cents per hour in the U. S. In Mexicogarment workers are paid a lowly average of .
50-. 54 cents per hour. In Thailand thatnumber is . 65 per hour.
In addition, many laborers are required to work in generally unhealthy anddangerous surroundings for outrageously-long hours. Ninety-six hour work weeks andfourteen-hour days are routine for employees in the garment industry, who, like theaforementioned Hernandez, often find themselves subject to the demands of tyrannicaland obdurate bosses charged with increasing levels of productivity at the expense of theirworkers welfare. They would yell at us every time they walked by, Hernandez said. Sometimes they would (physically) punish people with straps or sticks to make themwork harder. Gender equity and child labor issues in the garment industry have also emerged asan increasing concern of sweatshop-opposed human rights organizations.
Of theestimated four million garment workers in China, most are women agedsixteen-to-twenty-three who have migrated from rural areas to live in small rooms in thefactory building in which they work, often with ten-or-so other laborers with whom theymust share only a few beds. Generally, these women are fired if they become pregnant orwhen they reach twenty-five and are worn down by years of working in such physicallystressful conditions. The labor forces in many factories are comprised of children asyoung as six who are born into poor families and must lead their entire lives in the mostdismal circumstances. The poorest citizens of other countries with substantialworking-class populations — like Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, andPakistan — exist under similar desperate conditions.
The companies responsible for these excessively-capitalistic business practices arehighly visible at any shopping mall throughout the United States. The countrys largestretailer — Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. , which employs around 825,000 worldwide — has, morethan any other company, been the posterchild for third-world labor exploitation since thedeluge of sweatshop publicity struck around five years ago. However, if anything, thecompany relies on sweatshop for the bulk of its production more now than ever before.
According to a Washington Post survey, 85% of Wal-Marts private-label clothing iscurrently produced overseas, a 10% increase over 1996 levels. Large corporationsostensibly find third-world nation workforces attractive because those countries do nothave minimum-wage laws or labor unions that might interfere with maximizing profits Managers in some companies are making efforts to ameliorate the situation. Some are responding voluntarily, while others are reacting as a result of pressure broughtto bear by human rights organizations. The National Labor Committee has coordinateddemonstrations across the United States against sweatshops, targeting Wal-Mart inparticular, in what NLC attorney Al Meyerhoff described on the organizations Web siteas a Process that makes gains at a snails pace. In addition to promoting morediscriminating shopping habits among consumers, the National Labor Committee alsowants Wal-Mart and other stores to disclose the names of all factories and locationsaround the world. This intelligence would more effectively enable human rights activiststo select target areas for future campaigns.
Thus far, Wal-Mart has refused to cooperatewith this request. The profits-first corporate approach that pervades Wal-Mart managementmanifests itself distinctly in the attitude of Gerald Saganovich, 34, manager of the SanJose branch of the company. Saganovich staunchly maintains that there is nothingfundamentally unscrupulous about the companys business practices in foreign markets. Were not doing anything that a number of other big businesses arent doing, and that istrying to sustain a healthy bottom line, especially in light of the bad shape the wholeeconomys in right now, he said. Thats the nature of big business. When asked how aware he felt customers are of Wal-Marts business methodsoverseas, he responded that they are Very aware.
. . I dont think most people care verymuch, to be completely honest. . .
were not the bad guys here, and people know that. However, in a survey of 50 different shoppers at the San Jose Wal-Mart who were read astatement describing the dire conditions faced by Burmese Wal-Mart sweatshopemployees, only 5 (10%) described themselves as very aware of the problem. Twenty-one (42%) were somewhat aware, and 23 (46%) were not at all aware. Ofthe 23 who were previously unaware, only 5 said the information was likely to influencetheir future buying habits. I feel bad for those people (the Burmese), but I still need tobuy myself clothes, said Ashley Donoffrio, 26, of San Jose.
Wal-Mart frequently defends against champions of the anti-sweatshop movementby asserting that numerous other dominant American companies that market andmanufacture shoes and attire internationally are equally culpable. And, of course,organizations like the NLC have cited some other very prominent manufacturingcompanies for sweatshop human rights violations, including Liz Claiborne, the Gap, AnnTaylor, K-Mart, Ralph Lauren, J. C. Penny, The Limited, Guess Jeans, Esprit, Nike andAdidas.
While the bulk of attention surrounding the inhumane labor practices of thesecompanies center around Asian and South American markets, some of the worstcircumstances for garment workers exist much closer to home. Because of the abundantsupply of inexpensive labor, Mexican border towns are especially popular factory sites forU. S. corporate giants. The citizens of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a developing city near theTexas-Mexico border, are prototypical casualties of American industrys penchant forexpanding into impoverished foreign towns.
A series of factory buildings, most sportingthe names of popular U. S. brands like the aforementioned Guess, dot the townslandscape and provide subsistence-level employment for many of the citys population of1. 3 million. Starting wages are $6 for a nine-hour day, a level that, despite inflation,barely exceeds that of thirty-five years ago. Cuidad Juarez native Ivan Bibriesca, who immigrated to Santa Cruz four yearsago and now works for Alvaros Steakhouse in Capitola, recalls working in the Guessplant as an excruciating experience.
It was really bad there — I dont think most peoplesurvived, he said. We were so close to the border, but I think most people didnt makeit. Some people tried to get (together) a union, but they got fired. Indeed, employers at border towns have consistently worked together toundermine any union movements that have materialized over the years. Invariably, thefactory managers are Americans who commute from nearby El Paso, unlike the laborers,who, for the most part, live in shanty towns without paved roads and sewers and cannoteven afford bus fare to and from work. Because these miserable conditions are prevalentthroughout Ciudad Juarez, they have earned it the nickname The Cardboard City.
In any event, the problems of Ciudad Juarez lie deeper than poverty, according toBibriesca. Due to the availability of steady work in the area, there is a massive andnear-constant influx of Mexicans from the south and of deported immigrants from theUnited States, whose presence places a severe strain on the citys resources and hascaused a significant increase in its crime rate. As a consequence both of its burgeoningpopulation and its border location, Ciudad Juarez is not only a popular target for newfactories, but for drug smugglers as well. I would say most of the people there wereinvolved with drugs — buying them or selling them, Bibriesca said. People neededmoney, so they sold them, and people needed to get away from how bad their life was, sothey used them. Naturally, the high level of drug activity has also resulted in an inordinate numberof drug-related crimes and murders.
Because of the heavy traffic in drugs, substantialamounts of the illegal substances are left behind in the city to be consumed by the locals,many of whom seek to mask the pain of what Bibriesca describes as their impossiblelives. Directly correlated to the illegal immigration and drug smuggling is adisproportionately-high rate of rape and rape-related murders, mostly of female factoryworkers who have moved to the city from rural areas. Those who do not turn to drugs tomask the harsh reality of their existences often find consolation or escape in religion. Fittingly, while more affluent people in the United States disregard the reality ofsweatshop labor because they are preoccupied with trying to sport cutting-edge fashions,the people of Ciudad Juarez seek to disguise their realities because they are so painful. Faced with such unsettling tales of human suffering, Saganovich remains resolute:Wal-Mart is simply looking out for its best interests, and this alleged mistreatment offoreign laborers isnt anywhere near as bad as a lot of people make it out to be.
Thepeople who are speaking out so strongly against us are little more than a type ofpropagandists with their own agendas. Nobody forces anyone to work anywhere, and alot of them are coming to America and making better lives for themselves. Hernandez is one of a relatively small number of lucky immigrants who haverealized a greater level of wealth and comfort in the States, but he will never forget theanguish his previous jobs brought him and his compatriots. Its great, I can affordclothes and food here now, he said.
But I try to buy from stores (that) dont havesweatshops.