by Lauren Lightningstorm on May 17, 2013


The last three weeks have been tough ones for the garment industry. A building housing three garment factories in Bangladesh collapsed on April 24; the death toll topped 900 workers on the same day that another factory disaster, this time a fire, claimed the lives of eight in the same metropolitan area. Retailers and designers like Benetton, Walmart, Sears, Disney and Tommy Hilfiger haven’t seen this much scrutiny since the Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka killed 112 a whole five months ago.

Onto this landscape of death, poverty, and grinding human misery flits designer Bob Bland and her adorable “fashion incubator/factory hybrid,” known as Manufacture New York.

In an interview last Saturday with CBS News, Ms. Bland cashed in on the public suffering of thousands by describing how Manufacture New York wants to avoid such abuses by bringing garment manufacturing jobs back to the shores of the good ol’ U. S. of A.

“When something overseas happens like this [event in Bangladesh], especially in an apparel factory, I think about, ‘What if this was a factory here that collapsed, and 500 people in my community were dead?’ I would be completely devastated. So how is it different just because it’s another country far away? . . . In Bangladesh, you would pay someone 14 cents an hour, or on average $38 a month, versus here in New York City, where a skilled person working in the garment industry will make at least $12 an hour.”

Though it’s not clear whether it’s Ms. Bland or interviewer Jim Axelrod who’s pushing the Made In The USA angle for this interview, the shinyshiny video on the Manufacture New York website features Ms. Bland proudly touting her project as a way “to empower an entire [sic] new generation of designers and apparel makers to make their products in the USA and bring back local jobs.”

Ms. Bland seems to believe that the problem of industrial disasters in Bangladesh would be magically solved if we could somehow just import those jobs back to the US. No one would get hurt in fires or collapsing buildings, she and her friends could begin to mass-produce their boutique clothing lines for less money, and some “skilled” Americans could make $12 an hour — because, presumably, the dead and grieving Bangladeshis weren’t skilled workers, and in Ms. Bland’s world, $12 an hour is a living wage in New York City.

bobblandSitting prettily in red lips and bangs, Ms. Bland’s voice nearly breaks with disbelief and compassion for the victims of her industry:

“Those people who died were making clothes for us here in America. And that’s important because we owe it to them to not let this happen again. I would like to see Americans take a look at when they’re buying that five-dollar T-shirt, they need to think about that and know that there is a cost. Fashion should never kill.”

OK. Let’s get real for a second.

I’m sure that the idea of “bringing these jobs back home” seems like a neato solution to the problem of sweatshops in the international garment industry, but actually, there are quite a number of people laboring to make your ribbons and bows right here in the USA, right now. And one quick look at the stats is enough to demonstrate that bringing more sewing jobs here does almost nothing to stem the tide of abuse and slavery in the industry.

According to the Department of Labor, there are over 22,000 sewing shops in the US. Workers in over half of those shops are subject to violations in wage and hour laws. Even more are subject to safety abuses as part of their working day: as many as 90% of sewing shops violate health and safety standards, allowing dangerous conditions that can cause injury or death.

That’s right. In Los Angeles, Chicago — even Ms. Bland’s beloved community of New York — people slave away in sweatshops every day of the week.

Ms. Bland’s ignorance regarding how clothing gets made is both striking and shameful. Her assertion that “fashion should never kill” leaves one dumbstruck. From the victims in Bangladesh to the dead of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, from slavery in the cotton industry of the 19th century to the deadly occupational diseases among dyers, bleachers, and other textile workers of the 20th century, the one enduring fact about fashion is that it does — most definitely — kill quite a lot of people.

But as unnerving, false, and intolerably precious as Ms. Bland’s assertion is, it’s not all that surprising that she believes it, because the entire apparel industry is structured precisely to mask the slavery and violence on which it depends.

Currently, the Department of Labor defines a sweatshop as “an employer that violates more than one federal or state labor law.” These laws undergird the most fundamental provisions of employment: paying at least minimum wage, paying on time, paying overtime, keeping timecards for employees, prohibiting child labor — and yes, child labor is still alive and well on these shores.

In the popular imagination, the word sweatshop conjures up thoughts of warehouses full of women hunched over sewing machines, each taking piece after piece from a pile on one side and then moving them to a pile on the other side, so that the next woman can sew the next seam. We think of such places as poorly ventilated, of the workers as cramped and under pressure to make enough garments to meet their quotas. We imagine that they must sweat — a lot.

Indeed, those conditions do exist, and probably in a factory not too far away from the future home of Manufacture New York. But the origin of the word sweatshop has nothing to do with the horrid conditions or the amount of perspiration the employees lose on the job.

The word sweatshop was initially used to describe the contract system whereby designers got their designs mass-produced. It originated in the 19th century, when clothiers “sweated out” the work of making clothing to contractors. They paid a specific amount to a contractor, who took that money and subcontracted out to pattern makers and other manufacturers. These subcontractors then subcontracted to foremen. A foreman would take his cut and hire laborers – the sewers — who were paid by the foreman, out of his own cut.

In this system, each contractor and subcontractor was responsible only for paying himself (such jobs were almost always held by men) and the people he directly hired — and no one else. If a subcontractor wanted to make more, he paid those under him less, and so on and so forth down the line. The smallest contracts went to the foremen, and the tiniest portion of that went to the laborers in the form of wages. If the foreman didn’t want to pay or wanted to squeeze out more for himself, he simply paid the workers less, or charged them for their thread, lockers, chairs, etc. as a means not to pay them at all.

The sweating system flourished in New York and in other manufacturing centers. It was so rife with abuse that many foremen ran factories out of basements, or from their own rooms in crowded tenements. At night, the tenement was the foreman’s home; during the day, beds were moved and the workers arrived, staying for 16 hours or more in dark, windowless workspaces with poor lighting and no fire exits.

The problem of sweat labor was a gigantic issue in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Strike of 1909. At the time, sweat labor was rampant; it was well known to the striking women and to government officials that the system of sweating out labor led directly to unsafe factories, abused workers, and underpaid/unpaid sewers.

Many of the workers who went on strike in 1909 won the right to organize in their factories, but the problem of sweat labor, unfair wages, and unsafe conditions continued, leading directly to the fire in 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. There, 146 workers lost their lives when the paper patterns caught fire and the blaze whipped through the scrap-strewn eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building in New York City’s garment district.

The Triangle Factory’s enduring example of the problem of sweat labor is masked by the story we tell ourselves about what it means. After the fire at Triangle, new health and safety regulations were enacted in New York and nationally. One of the reasons that so many people died in the Triangle fire is that the owner of the Asch Building had installed a cheap and poorly constructed outer-wall staircase instead of the third-exit stairway required by law. In New York, new building codes were subsequently passed to address some of the hazards that had made the factory a deathtrap for so many people.

And that’s what we tell ourselves is important about the Triangle Fire: that such a thing can’t happen now because we’ve got so many regulations. We say, “Look, there are laws now. It can’t happen again; we’ve learned.” And with the creation of these new regulations, we’ve also changed what it means for a place to be a sweatshop. No more is the focus on the problem of sweated, subcontracted labor; now we see the issue only as a question of violations of wage and safety laws.

But even today in the United States — as at the time of the ILGWU Strike, as at the time of the Triangle Fire, and as it is now in Bangladesh — the thing that makes wage, hour, health, and safety violations possible, the thing that makes the modern-day slavery of garment-industry workers here and abroad possible, is the system of subcontracted labor. The system of sweating — the system of sweatshops — has not changed.

We like to pretend that there are “good” labels and “bad” labels, but that’s just a fantasy. Getting to the bottom of who’s responsible for and who’s negligent with regard to the exploitation of workers is just as complicated as it was a hundred years ago, particularly when you consider that the majority of the responsibility for oversight lies with the companies themselves. The truth of the matter is that the entire fashion industry is responsible; the entire fashion industry is negligent.

Sweat labor is what allows clothiers to swear up and down — as they did a century ago — that they didn’t know that abuses were taking place. It’s the thing that made Kathy Lee Gifford cry and the Kardashians blush. It’s the thing that allows Walmart to pretend that abuses are not the company’s fault, but an issue for their contractors to work out. It’s the thing that drives Foxconn workers to murder themselves out of despair, while Steve Jobs blithely tells the president that “those jobs [making iPhones] aren’t coming back” to the United States.

But as in 1909, everyone knows what’s going on; we just don’t bother to think about it. Instead, we tell ourselves comforting stories: that boycotts of certain clothiers will solve the problem, that an end to cronyism in Bangladesh will make it better, that better building codes in Dhaka are really what’s needed, that bringing garment labor back to the United States will do the trick.

But those are all lies. Because the bottom line is this: labels want clothes made cheaply, and everyone has to make their costs; if it costs a few human lives — or even a few thousand — it doesn’t really matter to the capitalists who are making bank on the whole business.

Perhaps it seems unfair to pick on sensibly coiffed Bob Bland, the “apparel activist,” self-promoter, and entrepreneur behind Manufacture New York. But the sop of “Jobs: USA” is an insult to the dead, maimed, and enslaved of Bangladesh and to the dead, maimed, and enslaved of the United States — because the workers are the same, no matter where they are chained. And I, for one, don’t have any patience for the budding capitalists and boutique designers, including Ms. Bland, who want to use an enterprise like Manufacture New York as a jumping-off point from which they can learn to exploit labor just like the big boys.

It’s notable to me that Ms. Bland calls her own label “Brooklyn Royalty.” Royalty, indeed. The workers in the garment industry can do without the noblesse oblige of the monarch of Manufacture New York.

* * * *

Lauren Lightningstorm is a cook and temp worker who lives in Iowa City, Iowa. She enjoys painting her nails and smashing capitalism.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: