Dirt Cheap Fashion

Elisabeth Wynhausen, author of Dirt Cheap: Life at the Wrong End of the Job Market had a piece earlier this month about how she went around sleuthing down the supply chains of items in her wardrobe.

“Perhaps knowing more about the garments would help defuse the minefield of ethical dilemmas shopping has become,” she writes.

Does the chief executive of Simona, an Australian clothing company, have any idea of the wages of workers in mainland China where Wynhausen’s shirt was made?

“I don’t ask,” John Recek responds. “They wouldn’t tell you anyway. It’s actually not my problem. But what I can tell you about the companies I deal with–after being in their offices–is that I would be 100 percent certain they’re all doing the right thing as far as Simona is concerned.”

When Kerrie Yelland, national sales manager for Simone Turpin, another label popular with Wynhausen, is asked whether it’s possible that some of Simone Turpin’s small factories are subcontracting their work to factories that may not be as fair, Yelland replies, “The girl in production can tell you definitely, but as far as I’m aware this was done by the guy in Marrickville and he has his in-house machinists. Whether he’s got an outside source of workers, I don’t know.”

Unfortunately, the production manager will be busy all month, Yelland adds.

In 2006 [Anita] Chan and Kaxton Siu, a colleague now at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, interviewed garment workers from four factories in Shenzhen City that supplied Wal-Mart in the US. Despite widespread reports of labor shortages in China, they found that in driving down the prices of goods, Wal-Mart is driving down migrant wages in the export sector.

The same thing is happening in the remotest pockets of the globe, as big retailers exert downward pressure on the wages of migrant workers. There could hardly be a better example than Saipan, in the western Pacific, one of the 14 islands of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a far-flung territory of the US where US labor laws do not apply. A reference to a court case there prompts me to dive into my cupboard to check the labels on the black Anne Klein blouse, Jones New York high-necked T-shirt and gray Ralph Lauren pants suit I bought in Macy’s in 2006. All say “made in the Northern Marianas Islands USA.”

I have unknowingly bought clothing made in a place that has become a byword for sweated labor.

The Saipan garment factories opened in the ’80s to circumvent the quota system that set limits on the amount of clothing entering the US from any other country. That rule didn’t apply to Saipan and soon recruiters were bringing in temporary migrant workers from Asia, charging them thousands of dollars in recruiting fees for the privilege of earning a wage that last year reached $US3.55 an hour.

In Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, author John Bowe reports on the 1999 class action suit 30,000 present and former migrant workers from Saipan filed against 25 American retailers, among them Polo Ralph Lauren and the Jones Apparel Group (which includes the Anne Klein brand), the Gap, Target, Liz Claiborne and Calvin Klein. The case was eventually settled for US$ 20 million in unpaid back wages and over time.

Since then, the quota system has been changed, the garment factories on Saipan are closing and big retailers are combing the world for other sources of cheap labor.

I emailed the customer relations department for Polo Ralph Lauren to ask if they could help me map the supply chain of my pants suit. They wrote back: “Polo Ralph Lauren requires all licensees, vendors, contractors, and subcontractors to adhere to strict operating guidelines, which cover the following: health and safety, wages and benefits, working hours and overtime, freedom of association, child labor, customs compliance, environmental regulations, as well as forced labor, prison labor and discrimination.”

They didn’t mention Saipan, though.

Read the whole piece at The Australian

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