I have been to one of the sweatshops where The Gap gets its shirts made by African women working for Chinese corporations. The workers (almost all women) are paid R800 ($114) a month. Each woman stands on her feet on concrete and does one tiny task–ironing the right sleeve, stitching the left shoulder seam, folding one sleeve in–all day, every day, for years on end. Chinese supervisors, also women, punished or dismissed if quality diminishes, afraid for their jobs, walk up and down the rows and tell them, “No talking!” “No singing!” “No!” There is only fluorescent light, greenish and dim. No sound but the din of the machines. No air conditioning or heat. No fans. Lint in the air, and no masks to protect the workers from the lint which slowly builds up in their lungs. No health insurance. No benefits.
The women are grateful for their jobs. It’s how they support their families. Without these jobs, they would be destitute. There are some thousands of women in this one factory alone, which stretches further than my eye or my camera can see. These jobs are a great boon to Lesotho, even in these horrible conditions. And yet the word in the street is that the Chinese will be leaving soon. Labor is cheaper in Bangladesh, Thailand, and Vietnam. There, a woman will work for half what the Chinese pay the Basotho. This is the rumor, and the rumor keeps the women uneasy. There is no complaining about pay, hours, working conditions. Only fear that they may lose their jobs, fear that some horde of small-boned Asian women in a world they cannot imagine, desperate like them, will take their jobs.