In an attempt to keep a dialogue going surrounding the sweatshop conditions in which so many mass-produced articles of clothing are made, Norwegian publication Aftenposten has released a harrowing web documentary series that sends three fashion bloggers into the heart of a Cambodian sweatshop. The series puts the conditions that its employees face on a day-to-day basis in an unfiltered and heartbreaking way.
The series has already sparked debate over not just the obviously horrific conditions in the sweatshops that Norwegian bloggers Frida, Ludvig and Anniken visit, but over the ethics of the series itself, which could be seen as bordering on third-world exploitation. It’s easy for Westerners to turn a blind eye, however, and if bringing the Western gaze onto the situation takes putting actual Westerners in the situation, then the work the documentary is doing is important.
In an interview with Pulse, the series’ director Joakim Kleven spoke a little bit about the conditions that he witnessed: “It was extremely difficult to come at all in any factory inside. The only factory that has let in us, was one of the best in Cambodia, but that was not okay. It was very hot in there, there was no toilet paper in the toilets and the chairs on which the seamstresses had to sit were extremely uncomfortable. Some workers have told us that soldiers stood during her shift already behind them and they would have beaten for sewing, so much so that some of them were unconscious.”
This probably is exploitation–after all, it’s a series that allows white people to parachute in on the lives of Cambodians and features the voices of those white people as the sympathetic storytellers. However, in this case, it is probably worth it. As I argue in Out of Sight, the fact that so much industrial production is done overseas means that when Bangladesh has its version of the Triangle Fire, there will be no Frances Perkins there to witness it and then mobilize consumers and politicians to mandate changes to the apparel industry. This separation of production and consumption is intentional and happens in part to protect companies from having to improve conditions. So a show that actually gives westerners the opportunity to see the conditions in which their clothes are made has real potential to put that production back in sight. And that’s incredibly important for creating change.