I just stumbled across this article about a Norwegian reality TV show that brought three young fashion bloggers to work in a Cambodian sweatshop. I’d encourage you to read it. In their first days, the bloggers conclude that the workers, who look happy, are probably just fine. It’s all they know. But as they form relationships and share more experiences, they come to a far different conclusion. “‘You think you know; you think you know it’s bad,’ Hambro [one of the bloggers] says. ‘But you don’t know how bad it is before you see it.'”
I work for two companies whose factories and workshops are located in Uganda- a developing country with similar challenges and opportunities. The salaries we pay our employees are good by local standards, and as we learn more about the needs and expenses of our employees, we’d like to get even better. Some people see that and applaud, but I can’t wait for the day where the work we’re doing is not extraordinary. It should not be extraordinary.
Because the thing is- it’s not that hard. Particularly for companies with western retail outlets, a reasonable wage is no insurmountable sum. Sure, there are challenges involved, and we do work hard and have some straining financial moments, but we also don’t have the resources of larger design and retail outlets. We also don’t quite know what we’re doing sometimes, but we figure it out. And for every corporate employee unwilling to do the work of setting up or ensuring reasonably safe and fair facilities, I’d be willing to bet there are at least a few optimistic and underemployed young people like myself who’d be game to head off to the other side of the world and figure things out.
To put costs into perspective; one of the companies I work with threw a party for our twenty-five employees last year, with games, plates heaped full of food and a couple of sodas each to wash it down. We wanted to appreciate their hard work and give them a moment to relax and enjoy one another’s company. It cost about $40.
Let’s stop making excuses for major retailers that can’t look after the people at the bottom of their supply chain. And its tough, incredibly tough sometimes, but let’s stop looking the other way when we know exactly what they’re up to. Because when we dare to take those steps, what we’re really doing is acknowledging that our wardrobes are not more important than people.