They sit in hot, noisy, clothing factories, surrounded by bright-colored fabric that would soon
become shirts, jackets, jeans, and scarves. Working 12 to 14 hour shifts, with only a small break for lunch, they
are tired, but they can't stop, can't slow down because in order to eat and to live, this is what needs to be done. Everyday. Even when they are sick, tired, or injured, this is how many men, women, and children survive in order that we, across the globe, can have cheap fashion.
A century ago, children as young as 5 worked in clothing factories throughout the U.S in dangerous conditions and for
low pay. They also worked long hours, with little or no break to go outside, eat, relax, or go to school. The clothing factories smelled of smoke, and after hours of breathing it in, children would come home exhausted and coughing. Accidents were common with fingers, hands, and hair, because tired, children nodded off and the machine they were operating might cut off their fingers and hands, and catch their hair. The only positive side was the money they earned, which was barely enough to for their families to live on. But everyone worked to pay the bills.
Some children tried to go on strike, demanding higher pay and shorter shifts, to give them time to go to school and play.
Rarely did their efforts make things better. Their bosses could viciously beat, fire, or even kill the children that were
going on strike. Fear was a strategy commonly used to keep children and women in line and the factory productive.
Later on, as the U.S became more focused on education for children and teens, conditions improved. New laws were made that prevented children from working certain jobs, and restrictions were placed on age and number of hours. Clothing brands opened new factories, where workers earned higher pay.
Twenty years later, a shift back rippled through fashion. American clothing companies discovered that their products could be made far cheaper in other countries, such as China and Bangladesh. Companies outsourced their labor overseas and the clothing was shipped back to the U.S to be sold in stores. American factories closed one by one.
The working conditions in these overseas factories are not safe, and people in charge of these clothing factories find loopholes and ways around laws that are aimed to protect workers and working conditions. Despite these loopholes, some countries don't have any of these laws. And in these countries, such as Bangladesh, devastation occurs: factories catch on fire because the buildings are old, and had never been built correctly. When that happens, women and children die.
Suddenly, we find ourselves back to square one.
We all want to be considered fashionable, right? Or at least have the opportunity to express ourselves through fashion, no? That's why it feels so good when that T-shirt you've been dying to buy is on sale and you know just the way you want to wear it. Jeez, it's so cheap, I'll even buy two and this belt to match. Now I can afford the scarf too. I can not wait to come back next week!
And whether I am using this piece of fashion to express myself, my confidence, my difference, who I think I am or want to be today, there is a seperate story behind the clothing, and the truth is heartbreaking. Some other girl, perhaps younger than me, is working to the point of exhaustion in unbearable working conditions who is doing so just to feed her family and to keep them alive. She's not considering what color shoes to wear or what this shirt says about who she is; she's just trying to survive.
Now when I go shopping for clothes, I can easily find myself overwhlemed, staring helplessly at the racks of clothing, thinking of who made them, knowing that more than half the time, that person's life is a far cry from the peace and comfort I enjoy in my own. How I use the bodies of others, even when they are across the globe, to meet my own needs and wants has to become part of my daily remembering. Then I wonder how I will make a difference.
There is no simple solution. I know that. I also know I will have to educate myself all the time to continue to be aware. And maybe part of that education is creating a narrative that helps me with my daily remembering: to remember that while I am in a store, deciding what shirt I should buy, in another country, there is a girl just about my age. She is sitting in the corner of a hot and crowded factory, stiching shirt after shirt, hour after hour, with cut and bleeding fingers. She has to go to the bathroom and needs water. Her little sister sits next to her with sweating hair and sleepy eyes. Their mother is home sick. Today they will one dollar so that they all might eat dinner tonight and not be hungry this day. That hope keeps her from drifting off, from getting her fingers cut in the machine again. She looks over at her sister to make sure she stays awake. She wipes the sweat quickly away from the baby's forehead, because after all, isn't she really a baby still? And with a shaking hand, she carefully slices the needle through the fabric, and finishes yet another shirt.