Sunday, January 9, 2011
This is not a drill people: We are sleeping out in nature.
Regarding the aforementioned mosquito net, I am currently in a hut (cabin? pagoda? rustic wooden round building sans warm water?) in “Pic Nic”- really, that’s the name- in Koh Kong province of Cambodia. We drove out from Phnom Penh this afternoon after visiting a slum area and the drive here took us past the most disgusting site that I have ever- I mean, hands down, EVER- have seen in my life. As we were driving (on our awesome oh-so-awkward and Western style tour bus) we went through a garment manufacturing district. And Oh. My. God. Never have I ever felt more nauseous in my life. And I say this having had a bout of chronic appendicitis for a five year period.
If you have never thought about where your Gap jeans come from, or felt thrilled about snagging a deal at Macy’s, this is my personal invitation for a wake up call. I am probably the MOST guilty person I know of this- I brag big time when I get a deal on jeans, t-shirts, tanks, shoes, luggage, skirts, (did I mention shoes?), and just about any other clothing item you can imagine. THOUSANDS of women- I say that word loosely, as many of them looked no older than 15- were pouring out of the factories at 5pm, climbing on top of minivans (yes, the same kind we drive at home), at least 20 women stacked on top and 20-30 packed inside. According to the local NGO pros we have with us, the women are paid 40-70 US dollars monthly to work in the factories from 7am-5pm all week (we drove past Saturday and back Sunday, I don’t know if everyone works all seven days, but the factories are open all seven). They pay $15ish US dollars to rent a small room to share with 4-5 other girls, sleeping on 15 inch mats packed together. They send the money home to their families in providences around the country. This may not all sound tooooo horrible, except when you see the factories it’s scary as shit- they are shrouded in secrecy, and apparently the working conditions are terrible from what I am learning from the local guides working on gender issues. The factories are surrounded by barbed wire, armed guards, high walls with spikes on the tops, and many have tree barriers around them so you can’t even see into the factories. NONE of the ones I saw have windows. Nike, Gap, Limited…anything that says Made in Cambodia likely may have come from one of these places. And the workers are ALL women- this is the result of a huge propaganda campaign done in the SE Asia region...usually it is socially unacceptable for women to travel away from home, or even work outside of the home. The gov here spent lots of time and money (I will find the articles I read to support this and link to this blog so you have more details later) to convince families that the 'honorable' thing for their daughters to do is contribute to the home by earning an income. Why the focus on getting the girls? Because most families don't expect their daughters to be able to earn income, so the companies
are able to pay them less then they would have to pay men.
I do think it's worth a debate about whether this practice is empowering women in some ways- getting them out of the house may be a good first step to incremental social change and re-framing the discourse about what women are capable of. HOWEVER I don't think that the way that these women are being treated should be tolerate either. I believe that it's not too much to ask to ensure that these women are treated humanely as they come out of the home. It doesn't have to be a zero sum game- we don't have to shove them back in the home because this is exploitative. Rather, why not work to lobby retail groups to make sure that working conditions are safe and the women have the right to organize. Not too much to ask.
More on my thoughts on this later, but for now let me just say this: I don’t know that I am going to go cold turkey on retail and switch completely to fair trade. Will and I are broke, and to concentrate our resources on purchasing items at 7 times the price of Target may not be as useful to the deconstruction of the industry as getting our butts in and out of grad school and then working to dismantle the system through effective foreign policy. I do know, however, that I am going to be MUCH more mindful as I drool over a new dress, and am going to be much more likely to buy used first at consignment shops, etc. I don’t know that I am ready to fall off the retail map, and I am certainly not advocating that others do so. I am just saying that I’m glad I am going to be more mindful of what I am participating in as I shop for a new pair of perfect jeans.