That shirt on your back

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.


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About Kendall

Aging drama queen (former professor of theatre) writes, takes pictures, and messes about.
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15 Responses to That shirt on your back

  1. Devorah says:

    I am not surprised at what you wrote – I thought ironically about the gifts you brought to your Lesotho friends — packed into that brown duffel — they could be coming full-circle — maybe some of the clothes you brought for them were manufactured here, shipped to China (or are they shipped directly from Lesotho through South Africa?) to the US and back to Lesotho in your duffel. What a world.
    I am curious about the Chinese women supervisors — brought from China themselves — do they live in dormitories? Women oppressing women — and how many supervisory-levels up are the men? Are there any dark brown skinned supervisors? What is it like for the women from China — what class do they come from — what does it “mean” for them to be far from their own people brought specifically to squeeze the life out of African women.
    Amazing. Thank you for this. I will wait (impatiently) for answers to these questions and the many other questions that are layering themselves in my brain — wait until you come back to this unreality we US folks call normality —

    • Kendall says:

      Wonderful questions. I must go back and ask a person who works here, who is a friend of mine. I am being careful not to expose her, I hope careful enough.

    • Kendall says:

      I finally got answers to your questions. The Chinese factory owners provide dormitory-style housing for the women who come to Lesotho as supervisors. The Chinese women must leave their husbands and children (most have some) for at least one full year, to work in Lesotho. Some return year after year. They are sent home for Chinese New Year. Otherwise they live in Lesotho and their children become strangers to them. The pay must be pretty good to justify their making that choice. Don’t know how much the Chinese women earn, nor the men, and of course the whole issue of class is vexed in China, to say the least. They are women who leave their families, their language, their culture, and everything they know to earn whatever it is they earn as factory supervisors in Lesotho. The language in which the Chinese women communicate is a patois of Sesotho and Chinese which the Basotho women learn.

  2. Devorah says:

    I also wanted to ask what language is used in the factory — supervisor speaking to worker; worker speaking to supervisor? Are the Chinese women in Lesotho long-term — long enough to speak the language?

  3. Devorah says:

    I googled… couldn’t help it… and found a working paper written by Maggie Opondo an academic in Kenya — “The Impact of Chinese Firms on CSR in Kenya’s Garment Sector”
    (CSR is corporate social responsibility)
    It’s a PDF one can download and it’s in a very readable style. Wow. Eye-opening. Lesotho is right there at the top for Chinese-run factories…
    There are interviews with workers, in-depth information, and it’s heart-breaking.

  4. himself says:

    Watching, noting, waiting (breaking a resolution).

  5. chaiselongue says:

    You’ve seen who pays for our western clothes. A terrible image of working conditions that people who wear Gap shirts would never tolerate for themselves. Hard to know what those women can do about it, though, since they need the work and the bad pay and conditions.

  6. Kendall says:

    Thank you all. Suggest you read Devorah’s link to a Google search item.

  7. Margareta says:

    How clever to get permission to go there! I look forward to your photos from this place, and I hope that the Gap shirts feel sticky on the wearer’s backs when/if they hear this. Do try to get a newspaper interested when you return!

  8. Keith says:

    I have first hand experience of similar factories in another country and there too, competitive pressure from countries like Vietnam threatening their jobs is of more pressing concern to the workers than the conditions under which they work, harsh as they might be. Of course, this is never a reason to exploit those who are desperate for work at any cost; but how many of us complain when the cost of merchandise increases, never giving a thought to the suffering of those and the anxiety of those involved in its production?

  9. Pingback: Occupy Black Friday | Portland Occupier

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