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The Good Sweatshops | Manolo for the Big Girl

The Good Sweatshops

They dot the east side of the marginally paved highway about an hour outside my village; yawning concrete warehouses, no windows, with faded names painted over the corrugated steel loading docks that also serve as doors. There’s no ventilation except for the open docks, and tired women in blue or maroon smocks shuffle along the side of the road to the bus stop or stand under the shade of a makeshift dragon fruit stand waiting for their rides.

These are the sweatshops of Mexico.

“But they’re the good ones!” Hot Latin Boy was quick to point out.

What is a good sweatshop, exactly?

I knew he’d worked in a not-so-good one when he was quite young –I’d say “barely legal” but he wasn’t legal at all, plus I always get creepy Googlers when I use phrases like that– sewing the left shoulder seam into t-shirts using a treadle machine. His best friend sewed the right.

A “good” sweatshop is one where you actually make minimum wage and they don’t hire kids under 12.

Here in Baja minimum wage is 57.46 pesos a day which translates to $3.97 USD as of last night. It’s the highest minimum wage in Mexico.

Four dollars a day.

There might be places in the world where that’s a good wage. Here, where goods are considerably more expensive than they are stateside, it’s not.

A gallon of milk here costs close to five dollars, a gallon of gas about four fifty.

Benefits are minimal, though some run on the old company store model and will sell you your medicine on credit…with interest, of course. Maternity leave? Protection against sexual harassment? Don’t count on it.

Come in late? They dock you an entire day’s pay.

Call in sick? Two days.

Now listen, I’m not going to get on my steel-reinforced soapbox any more than I already have. It’s dizzy up here and I’m still recovering from my fall last week.

We all pick our battles, and these sweatshops, along with their kinder, gentler (though not by much) cousins the maquineras do provide some income, though nowhere near a living wage, for families in need.

Plus, it’s hard out there for everyone now. Sure it’s easy to say only buy American or ethically-made, but if you’ve got fifteen dollars in your bank account and a kid who just outgrew his last pair of pants…well, priorities change. I get that.

All I’m saying is most of us have become more environmentally ethical consumers in the past decade and maybe it’s time to broaden that net.

We’ve moved away from the wasteful and toward the enduring, yet many of us still humble-brag about not spending That Kind of Money on clothes as we gladly pop into Old Navy to pick up a bit of cheap and cheerful that will be useless after four washes, happily ignoring the price of oppression, danger, systemic abuse and degradation that someone not lucky enough to be born into the first world had to pay so we could get that five dollar tee.

As many of us get ready to buy our summer wardrobes, I invite everyone to think a little more about what we’re saying when we hand over our money to a company that pays its workers so little that a day’s wage can’t buy a gallon of milk. Cheap, yes but not very cheerful.

 

25 Responses to “The Good Sweatshops”

  1. Lisa from SoCal June 1, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    Thanks for talking about how much it costs to live as well. Whenever this discussion comes up in my economist-laden policy school, they all rush to say “oh, but it’s so cheap to live there!” Um, no it’s not. I’m a public ethicist in a school of economists, so I usually get shouted down when I ask questions about ethical consumption. If the market produces it, they say, it must be ok. And thanks for the statement about understanding being cash strapped–too often people dismiss cheaper goods and pay no attention to the fact that people in the US can be hard up, too. These issues are tremendously complicated: if people really aren’t better off making $4 a day, why don’t they stay home, the economists argue. Because they are poor and desperate, yo, I say.

    The major critiques of fashion or spending “that kind of money” on clothing harkens to Peter Singer’s hypothetical of “would you refuse to dive into a lake to save a drowning child if you knew it would ruin your D & G shoes.” From there he develops the analogy that buying the D & G shoes in the first place, rather than doing without, buying cheaper shoes, and then using the money you would have spent on the designer shoes on philanthropy. I’ve never found this convincing: I’ve had a pair of D & G pumps for going on 12 years now, and they were made by craftsmen making a good wage. $25 shoes die in six months and are made in bad working conditions. I’d rather support the former, as I can afford to pay people living wages. I undertand if others can not, but I’m not going to accept the idea that buying cheapo and then engaging in philanthropy is somehow more morally defensible than than ethical markets and ethical trade.

  2. Thea June 1, 2012 at 12:04 pm #

    Thanks Plummie, beautiful and thoughtful piece of writing

  3. Miss Plumcake June 1, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

    That has been the most shocking thing about Mexico. Because vacationing here is so inexpensive, I had the same illusion about living here. Wrong. Although most services are relatively cheap, goods and necessary utilities are much more expensive, usually by about 30% but often closer to twice or three times as spendy.

    Plus of course buying inexpensive disposable goods is a false economy in most cases, not to mention wasteful, ethically questionable when you consider the working conditions etc etc etc

  4. Debs June 1, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

    Thank you. Here in liberal Nor Cal, it seems many people don’t get that buying high quality items from the USA or Europe supports the facilities which make those items. And those facililties generally provide decent working conditions and benefits. You can enjoy those items for a lifetime (or sell or donate them). The stuff doesn’t just get tossed into landfillls and replaced with ANOTHER item made under unethical conditions.

    It isn’t philanthropy, but standing appointments for personal services with properly compensated adults (massage therapists, hairdressers) provide those people with reliable income. I too disagree that it is better to buy cheaply or forgo services and then give the extra money away. One can be philanthropic & spend ethically to support decent jobs.

  5. Ellen W. June 1, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

    @Lisa- I feel you. I actually left my first university because I got in similar fights with the econ department there. (and personal reasons, but I didn’t come back because of the fights.) And what is with the shouting over? Do they really think that makes their thought processes more valid? I did pretty well asking if they were confusing “interrupting and loud” with “more rational” again. Or just kept talking about anything and everything until they stopped so they knew I wasn’t listening to a word they said. You don’t listen to me, I don’t listen to you.

    phew.

    Okay back on topic- I, and many other people I know, would love, love to spend our money on long-lasting, well & ethically made items. But, and this is a big one, I don’t have a D&G anywhere near me, we all know that the “fancy” brands don’t carry that much in Big Lady sizes, and I don’t know which expensive brands are expensive because they’re better and which are more expensive because they’ve realized they can charge anything and someone will be silly enough to buy it.

  6. Madame Suggia June 1, 2012 at 4:40 pm #

    I’m very picky about the clothes I wear, in terms of style, fabric (natural fibers only please) size (big!) and fit. I’m also not endowed with vast sums of cash to spend. Which is why I’m only too happy to make almost all-well, about 80%-of my clothing. That way I get-if not exactly what I want-very nearly clothing perfection, and the only sweated labor is mine.

  7. Jen Anderson June 2, 2012 at 12:07 am #

    Thank you for bringing this up. Another important point – it’s impossible to machine crochet anything. So anything you buy that’s crocheted and is inexpensive, was made by hand by someone who was grossly underpaid for their work.

    If you can’t tell the difference between knit and crochet, just ask someone who does one of the other and they can show you. It is possible to machine knit, so inexpensive knits were probably done by machine.

  8. Laura V June 2, 2012 at 8:45 am #

    I remember reading an analysis of shoe manufacturing costs a few years back, and it specifically addressed shoes claiming to be made in the EU. It said, basically, that a pair of EU-made shoes should not cost under $200 US — because when you are paying fair wages and using nontoxic materials/processing techniques and so on, that’s what shoes cost.

    It sure changed my approach to shoe-buying, let me tell you what.

  9. Miss Plumcake June 2, 2012 at 10:07 am #

    @Jen: That’s also true of basket weaving. All those cheap Pier One baskets? Almost certainly made by children in Asia.

  10. Tora Pines June 2, 2012 at 10:13 am #

    Good and timely post, Ms. Plumcake, thank you!

    I just finished reading Gabriel Thompson’s book, Working in the Shadows: a year of doing the jobs (most) Americans won’t do , and I can recommend it for some more insight into the facts, figures and faces of low wage jobs, particularly for the immigrant community.

    Thanks again for the post (and the reminder).

  11. class factotum June 2, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    Plumcake, you are right on. We have been boycotting items made in China and have been trying to buy things made in the U.S. It’s hard: I ordered a Tramontina dutch oven that Cooks Illustrated raved about. I had checked their website and it appeared that they manufactured not only in the U.S., but in Wisconsin, where I live.

    But when the oven arrived, it was stamped “Made in China.” With a heavy heart, I took it back to the store. The clerk asked why I was returning it. “Because it’s made in China,” I said.

    “Why is that bad?” she asked.

    I had to explain that I don’t want cheap consumer goods made by political prisoners who are tortured for not meeting production goals. Nor do I want cheap consumer goods made by people anywhere who work in horrible conditions.

  12. AnthroK8 June 2, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

    @Suggia- I hate to throw ice in this teacup, but textiles are typically made in the same kinds of environments that mass manufactured clothes are.

    The anti-child-labor movement in Britain was tied pretty closely to manufacturing conditions in cotton mills (and mines!) in England, for example. Children were/are hired because they have little fingers that can get inside moving parts of looms without stopping the weaving process. So… missing fingers. Yeah.

    This is not to say you shouldn’t make your own clothes- it’s a good option if it works for you, and I appreciate the benefits. I sew, too, and I love it.

    Just saying, if part of the reason you sew is labor conditions in manufacturing, keeping an eye on where things are made and by whom is a step to consider taking if you are so inclined.

  13. Madame Suggia June 2, 2012 at 3:07 pm #

    @AnthroK8, you make some very good points.

    I’m at the stage here that it’s getting so very confusing to be an ethical consumer, that I find it hard to actually ‘consume’ much at all!

    So called US/European made goods are often made largely elsewhere for a pittance, in appalling conditions by badly treated people, and simply finished off in the US/Europe. Or made from dubiously sourced goods, with all the problems that implies.

    Unless one can find the time, skills and money to produce one’s own fabric, you just have to do what you can with what you can get. So yes, I’m left to make as many of my clothes as possible, which is fine for me as it’s part of my job (in the garment trade) to be able to sew & draft patterns well.

    But how on earth does everyone else manage? Take away the truly hideous offerings available over a size 14, and what do you do? There’s only so much vintage/upcycled stuff to go around. It’s back to the sewing machine for me.

  14. Klee June 2, 2012 at 3:14 pm #

    I just came across a website that may make purchasing ethical products easier, called Good Guide.
    http://www.goodguide.com
    It rants products on ethical production, impact on the enviroment, etc. you can also set up your own guidelines. I found the clothing section eye-opening. Yes, you can expect cheap stuff to be made that way, but there were some popular names that I didn’t expect, too.

  15. Camo June 2, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    Great post, Plumcake, and very thought-provoking. The info in this thread about woven and crocheted items nearly always being made by kids was an eye-opener — I had no idea.

    It’s interesting how we always try to battle this with not always great success. I have a fairly hard line against any Chinese-made products at this point – something I tried once to discuss with a very close American-born Chinese friend. It was a tense conversation, since she thinks jobs = good and isn’t nearly as critical of the government there as I am. I also have been converted into a huge eBay buyer – I just picked up some used (don’t look at me that way!) Manolo’s in a style I LOVE for $100 plus shipping, and the other 2 pair of Blahnik’s I have are also used. It’s a way for me to get luxury goods in a more affordable way. (And the shoes are no-lie authentic, thanks to a prior Plumcake post).

  16. Desideria June 2, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

    The Golf Links

    The golf links lie so near the mill
    That almost every day
    The laboring children can look out
    And see the men at play.

    Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn
    _Through the Needle’s Eye_, (1916)

  17. Lisa in SoCal June 2, 2012 at 7:07 pm #

    And basket weaving is *hard*! Whatever the crafts folks charge for a homemade basket at craft’s fairs, I pay with pleasure, because basket weaving was one of the most miserable experiences of my life. MISERABLE.

  18. AnthroK8 June 3, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    @Madam Suggia– I know, right? The problem of course is that we are individuals making choices in a system, and our choices are constrained by that. Which sucks, if you want to be an ethical consumer.

    As you say, and really as Plum is saying, being aware is probably the most important step to take, and then realizing we have to choose our battles thereafter.

    Drafting… I have basic drafting skills and wow… yeah. Fun, but hard!

  19. Jezebella June 3, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    AnthroK8, you beat me to it. I went on a search for ethically made fabrics using organically grown fibers, and found only a very few sources. They were something like $40/yard or more. Hardly economical. I also wondered if the cost was entirely due to ethical manufacture, or whether it was inflated because, ironically, they’re “luxury goods.”

    I regularly ponder reviving my ancient sewing skills, but then I get stuck at the part where I have to apply a measuring tape to my waist, and I cannot bear the thought of it. That’s a whole other conversation, though.

  20. Carol June 4, 2012 at 7:56 am #

    What happens to those people when we stop purchasing what they make? What other resources do they have for making any money at all? Please – this is a serious question. If the manufacturers can’t sell what they make in those factories, they will close them. Then what?

  21. Miss Plumcake June 4, 2012 at 10:11 am #

    @Carol: That’s a very good question and one which I sort of alluded to in the post. It’s a question that gets bandied about in my beloved Virginia when we talk about tobacco farmers. I was a female newspaperman, but the newspapers are going away.

    People are remarkably resourceful and no one more so in my experience than my native hosts. The word hustle doesn’t even begin to describe it.

    Ideally, of course, the answer would involve education, jobs with higher skill, and long term that’s probably what’s going to happen…eventually. It’s the developing part of developing nation. BUT in the short term the hustle goes elsewhere.

    For example: Organic farms are the New Big Thing down here, and although it’s not likely you’re going to get your golden parachute in the production of leash-walked jicama, they do pay a better wage and not all the jobs are fruit picking.

    I understand the dilemma though. It’s like buying a puppy from a puppy mill. You take it home because you don’t want it to be treated badly, but you’re still supporting a bad cause.

  22. Whitney June 4, 2012 at 6:37 pm #

    I can’t fight every battle that I want. I can’t afford to. So I pick and choose and make the small, personal stands I can. I may be one person, and I am always quite verbal and open about the choices I make, but I do try. I’m a big fan of companies like Jolica who promote Fair Trade. I’ve never set foot in a Wal Mart (for a myriad of reasons). I try to buy pork and eggs from ethical producers. But my decision to support local farmers and local crafts people whenever possible means that I have a Payless shoe budget and my coffeemaker is a Chinese-made Mr. Coffee on cleaarance.

    i work in logistics – specifcally, ocean export. I know better than just about anyone what it costs to get that 20′ container os shampoo made in Ohio to Panama City. I see what the wholesale costs are for the potato chips and the truck parts and the rodenticides. And I know how much off the top of those wholesale prices are the *domestic* intermodal logistic costs. I also see the prices of the freight my neighbor, two desks down, has on the freight he’s importing.

    Next time you see that cute pair of clearance earrings for $5.00 on the rack at Target or Catherines, here’s what you need to keep in mind: That five bucks includes the cost of designing the earrings. It includes the cost of mining and metallurgy of any and all metal ores (even if it’s just the wire or post). Plastics? Petroleum mining costs. Fabric or threads? Addistional petroleum costs for man-made fibers, or money to the farmer for natural fibersl. Don’t forget all of the labor and fuel and other transport costs just to get all these materials to the same point for manufacture. Now it’s time to actually *make* those fabulous earring, put them on the card (ooh, more manufacturing costs), package them (more manufacturing costs) and send them out for distribution. It’ s logiiiiiiiiiiistiiiiiiics. The only cost in all of that that’s controllabe by the manufacturer? Labor. You can’t control fuel (FSC in the US is currently running 30-32% average). Materials cost what they cost and you’re paying for crap or even worse crap. And keeping in mind that all along the line people are *still* making a profit on those $5 earrings. Or t-shirt.

    You make the decisions you have to make. Just be knowledgeable about the ones you do.

  23. Whitney June 4, 2012 at 6:42 pm #

    Oh, heavens, I really can type…I just apparently can’t read through my post before hitting “send”.

  24. Cricket June 4, 2012 at 7:08 pm #

    Oh man. I was just hanging out with a friend who seems to own about twenty pieces of clothing, total, all “designer”, and he keeps them all meticulously neat and hanging up on these special fancy hangers. Meanwhile I have a million pieces of junk clothing, all scrambled up in my dresser. When you add it all up, I probably spent as much money as he did. I felt like a child when I saw what nice clothes he has and how well he keeps them. Thanks for the reminder the the aesthetically superior path is the ethically superior one as well.

  25. lali June 7, 2012 at 2:23 am #

    I live in a Third World country. I know people whose work in a sweatshop is all that stands between them and living in a pushcart on the street or sleeping on a piece of cardboard in a doorway. Yes, they do not make a lot of money. Yes, it is so sad that they do not make a lot of money. But the fact that they are making something — which, added to the little money made in similar circumstances by other members of the family comes out to a small sum which is enough to cover the basics for a family of six — is a good thing. It is easy to be horrified by less than minimum wage jobs in bad environments when you live in a country that had unemployment insurance and Welfare. There is no such thing here. I have known small companies which have had to shut their doors because they cannot pay minimum wages when these have been increased. That means 15,20, 30, maybe more people out on the streets looking for non-existent work. I have seen where desperation can take them