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.