As we all know, most of our clothing is now made in Asian sweatshops. The clothing companies intentionally know as little as possible about the conditions of production. They contract it out and then close their eyes. They refuse all responsibility for what happens so long as the clothes come in at price and on time. Otherwise, they don’t want to know. They don’t want you to know either, which is part of the reason why they claim that not only don’t they know, but they can’t really do much about it. This is of course a lie. In any case, what are the conditions of production in Indian sweatshops?
Among the worst of the findings in the report was that some Bengaluru factories kept women (the majority of garment workers) in hostels monitored by male security guards and severely restricted their movements. Most were allowed to leave for only two hours a week, usually on Sunday to buy groceries and other items, and only after registering with a guard. The rest of the time, women were expected to travel only to and from work, and guards recorded when they arrived at and left the hostels.
The ICN, it’s worth noting, didn’t record these practices at the two factories known to produce for H&M and C&A, though the C&A factory did employ guards. The H&M factory hostel only housed men, and they were allowed out until 11pm.
Workers could use phones to talk with friends and family, but the report points out that they had little to no opportunity to interact with labor advocates, making them more vulnerable to abuses. Indeed, some hostels segregated migrants by region, paying certain groups less. All made at least the minimum wage, though Bengaluru’s garment industry has previously been singled out for its unfairly low wages.
Many of the workers were also afraid of punishment. If a woman returned late, for instance, she could be made to wait outside the gate for hours until a guard let her in.
The report found that the hostels generally provide the bare minimum. At a hostel run by Arvind, which supplies H&M, men slept on three-tier bunk beds in large, divided halls. There are no kitchens, the water supply is irregular, and one bathroom serves 12 to 14 people. “Nothing is good,” one Arvind worker said. “But we are staying here because we have to live and there is no other way.” Workers also had to pay to stay there.
As I have documented over the years here and in Out of Sight (recently named a Choice Outstanding Academic Book of 2015–yay!), these conditions are basically the same in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. These are the clothes you are wearing today or yesterday or tomorrow. The question is what you are going to do about it? When are we going to start demanding that our politicians make these conditions a priority? When are we even going to begin questioning them about the basics? Does even Bernie Sanders have a meaningful position on global labor exploitation by American companies? If so, I haven’t heard it. We have to publicize these conditions and demand that our clothes are made in humane conditions. We have to demand that our fish is not produced by slaves. We have to at least publicly criticize the Obama administration when it reclassifies Malaysia’s human rights record just after human trafficking camps have been discovered so that it can include the nation in the TPP.
Right now, we are failing at all of this.