For most people in the United States, the term slave to fashion relates to an individuals desire always to be wearing the latest fashions from trendy clothing lines. In a twist of supreme irony, the designation applies much more literally to the legions of poverty-stricken sweatshop laborers worldwide who toil away under miserable conditions to produce the snappy apparel that Americans purchase in droves on a daily basis.
Conditioned by a media that places considerable emphasis on possessing a stylish wardrobe, the majority of U.S. consumers are far too awash in their own culture — one that is notorious for the value it places on material wealth — to be sensitive to the plight of these indigent foreigners. And although the US medias fleeting scrutiny of sweatshop conditions five years ago did make the issue a greater part of the national consciousness than ever before, not enough people changed their buying habits as a result — or at least not 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 this despotic element of their business practices in the least despite the negative publicity; in fact, they continue to exploit laborers in foreign, mostly Third-World countries to an alarming degree.
The scope of the problem is such that hundreds of residents in a town as small and isolated as Santa Cruz have at some point been employed in sweatshops in impoverished nations. Santa Cruz resident Lorenzo Hernandez endured years of mistreatment at a Doall Enterprises factory in El Salvador before immigrating with his wife and two sons to Santa Cruz in September, 2000. He now works full-time as a cook at Tony and Albas Pizza in Scotts Valley, and while he scarcely earns above minimum wage in his current position, it represents a substantial improvement to the abject conditions under which he labored for so many years in his home country. They treated us very badly (in El Salvador), Hernandez said. I earned not enough to live on.
My family could only buy two shirts and pants (per person), and we were always hungry. I worked 14, 16 hours a day but still did not make enough. Hernandez speaks and moves with the languor of a man who has spent his entire adult life working 80-hour weeks at physically-taxing jobs for domineering bosses who accepted nothing short of continuous effort without complaint and granted only occasional, monitored bathroom breaks. Years of constant use have rendered his hands callused, decrepit, and scattered with patches of scars and discoloration. His face is markedly cragged, his eyes convey a vacant — though faintly sad — quality, and his black scalp is blotted by manifold gray strands of hair.
He is only 34, but his rugged features and frail demeanor strikingly approximate those of a typical 60-year-old. I think my jobs have caused me to lose lots of time with my family in the future, he said of his prospects to live a long, fulfilling life. A National Labor Committee study conducted earlier this year revealed that the average 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 basket of goods necessary to sustain life in relative poverty. His wife, herself a portrait of fragility, worked odd jobs for meager wages to supplement the family income and ensure its survival.
Hernandez story is a familiar one not only to those in his native country, but to people in poor nations worldwide, some of whom face conditions even more desperate than those endured by many Salvadorans. For instance, wages in Indonesia and Burma have dropped to as low as what corresponds to nine cents per hour in the U.S. In Mexico garment workers are paid a lowly average of .50-.54 cents per hour. In Thailand that number is .65 per hour. In addition, many laborers are required to work in generally unhealthy and dangerous surroundings for outrageously-long hours. Ninety-six hour work weeks and fourteen-hour days are routine for employees in the garment industry, who, like the aforementioned Hernandez, often find themselves subject to the demands of tyrannical and obdurate bosses charged with increasing levels of productivity at the expense of their workers 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 them work harder. Gender equity and child labor issues in the garment industry have also emerged as an increasing concern of sweatshop-opposed human rights organizations. Of the estimated four million garment workers in China, most are women aged sixteen-to-twenty-three who have migrated from rural areas to live in small rooms in the factory building in which they work, often with ten-or-so other laborers with whom they must share only a few beds. Generally, these women are fired if they become pregnant or when they reach twenty-five and are worn down by years of working in such physically stressful conditions.
The labor forces in many factories are comprised of children as young as six who are born into poor families and must lead their entire lives in the most dismal circumstances. The poorest citizens of other countries with substantial working-class populations — like Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, and Pakistan — exist under similar desperate conditions. The companies responsible for these excessively-capitalistic business practices are highly visible at any shopping mall throughout the United States. The countrys largest retailer — Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., which employs around 825,000 worldwide — has, more than any other company, been the posterchild for third-world labor exploitation since the deluge of sweatshop publicity struck around five years ago. However, if anything, the company 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 is currently produced overseas, a 10% increase over 1996 levels.
Large corporations ostensibly find third-world nation workforces attractive because those countries do not have 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 brought to bear by human rights organizations. The National Labor Committee has coordinated demonstrations across the United States against sweatshops, targeting Wal-Mart in particular, in what NLC attorney Al Meyerhoff described on the organizations Web site as a Process that makes gains at a snails pace. In addition to promoting more discriminating shopping habits among consumers, the National Labor Committee also wants Wal-Mart and other stores to disclose the names of all factories and locations around the world.
This intelligence would more effectively enable human rights activists to select target areas for future campaigns. Thus far, Wal-Mart has refused to cooperate with this request. The profits-first corporate approach that pervades Wal-Mart management manifests itself distinctly in the attitude of Gerald Saganovich, 34, manager of the San Jose branch of the company. Saganovich staunchly maintains that there is nothing fundamentally unscrupulous about the companys business practices in foreign markets.
Were not doing anything that a number of other big businesses arent doing, and that is trying to sustain a healthy bottom line, especially in light of the bad shape the whole economys in right now, he said. Thats the nature of big business. When asked how aware he felt customers are of Wal-Marts business methods overseas, he responded that they are Very aware… I dont think most people care very much, 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 a statement describing the dire conditions faced by Burmese Wal-Mart sweatshop employees, 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.
Of the 23 who were previously unaware, only 5 said the information was likely to influence their future buying habits. I feel bad for those people (the Burmese), but I still need to buy myself clothes, said Ashley Donoffrio, 26, of San Jose. Wal-Mart frequently defends against champions of the anti-sweatshop movement by asserting that numerous other dominant American companies that market and manufacture shoes and attire internationally are equally culpable. And, of course, organizations like the NLC have cited some other very prominent manufacturing companies for sweatshop human rights violations, including Liz Claiborne, the Gap, Ann Taylor, K-Mart, Ralph Lauren, J.C. Penny, The Limited, Guess Jeans, Esprit, Nike and Adidas. While the bulk of attention surrounding the inhumane labor practices of these companies center around Asian and South American markets, some of the worst circumstances for garment workers exist much closer to home.
Because of the abundant supply of inexpensive labor, Mexican border towns are especially popular factory sites for U.S. corporate giants. The citizens of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a developing city near the Texas-Mexico border, are prototypical casualties of American industrys penchant for expanding into impoverished foreign towns. A series of factory buildings, most sporting the names of popular U.S. brands like the aforementioned Guess, dot the towns landscape and provide subsistence-level employment for many of the citys population of 1.3 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 years ago and now works for Alvaros Steakhouse in Capitola, recalls working in the Guess plant as an excruciating experience. It was really bad there — I dont think most people survived, he said. We were so close to the border, but I think most people didnt make it. Some people tried to get (together) a union, but they got fired. Indeed, employers at border towns have consistently worked together to undermine any union movements that have materialized over the years. Invariably, the factory 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 cannot even afford bus fare to and from work.
Because these miserable conditions are prevalent throughout Ciudad Juarez, they have earned it the nickname The Cardboard City. In any event, the problems of Ciudad Juarez lie deeper than poverty, according to Bibriesca. Due to the availability of steady work in the area, there is a massive and near-constant influx of Mexicans from the south and of deported immigrants from the United States, whose presence places a severe strain on the citys resources and has caused a significant increase in its crime rate. As a consequence both of its burgeoning population and its border location, Ciudad Juarez is not only a popular target for new factories, but for drug smugglers as well. I would say most of the people there were involved with drugs — buying them or selling them, Bibriesca said. People needed money, so they sold them, and people needed to get away from how bad their life was, so they used them.
Naturally, the high level of drug activity has also resulted in an inordinate number of drug-related crimes and murders. Because of the heavy traffic in drugs, substantial amounts 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 impossible lives. Directly correlated to the illegal immigration and drug smuggling is a disproportionately-high rate of rape and rape-related murders, mostly of female factory workers who have moved to the city from rural areas. Those who do not turn to drugs to mask 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 of sweatshop 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 of foreign laborers isnt anywhere near as bad as a lot of people make it out to be. The people who are speaking out so strongly against us are little more than a type of propagandists with their own agendas. Nobody forces anyone to work anywhere, and a lot of them are coming to America and making better lives for themselves. Hernandez is one of a relatively small number of lucky immigrants who have realized a greater level of wealth and comfort in the States, but he will never forget the anguish his previous jobs brought him and his compatriots.
Its great, I can afford clothes and food here now, he said. But I try to buy from stores (that) dont have sweatshops.