The holiday-gift moment of truth: ‘Wear’ am I?

After his garment industry world tour, this American can’t see jeans without thinking of Nari in Cambodia, or Christmas boxers without a nod to Arifa in Bangladesh.

By , Contributor

Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and Dhaka, Bangladesh

You’re never more self-conscious of the muscles in your face than during that moment of truth in holiday gift exchanges. You know the moment: You’re holding up an ugly Christmas sweater for all to see, verbalizing “lovely ... cute ... handsome,” but thinking, “too small ... too big ... too ugly ... garage sale.”

For me, there’s now one more step in the process: checking the “made in” label to see where in our world it was made.
In the past I didn’t care where my clothes were made or who made them. Clothes came from grandmas and aunts, and they just magically appeared under the tree.

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But a few Christmases ago while looking at a pile of my favorite clothes, I realized how little I knew about where they were made or who made them. Some of the countries of origin I couldn’t even place on a map. What started as a mild curiosity became an obsession, a worldwide quest, and ultimately my book, “Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories and People that Make Our Clothes.”

I met Amilcar who made my favorite T-shirt in Honduras; Arifa, who made my Christmas boxers in Bangladesh; Dewan and his wife, Zhu Chun, who made my flip-flops in China; and Nari and Ai in Cambodia who make my all-American bluejeans. Now I take a moment to remember the people who make our clothes, the factories in which they work, the families they support, and the reality of their lives.

I’m convinced that the more we know them, the more we’ll care about where our clothes come from, and the more we’ll recognize that our spending habits influence the lives of real people around the world. Please, allow me to introduce you.

• • •

In a garment factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, that fills contracts for companies such as Levi’s and Old Navy, the walls are lined with workbenches outfitted with motorized grinding stones. A young woman picks a pair of jeans from the denim pyramid at her side and starts grinding the cuffs and pockets. She stops to judge the level of fraying and, happy with her job, adds them to a smaller denim pyramid. In a way, this woman is the queen of cool. She applies the imperfections just the way we like them.

She is not a machine. There’s no such thing as a bluejean machine. She has a name, although, I don’t risk asking for it. While it’s OK to inquire about the production of my pants, my management host might not take too kindly to my curiosity about the workers making them.

I follow Kan Chen Chin, the factory’s manager, out of the room, and we enter a vast bluejeanland. He smiles and taps his watch.

“My boss says it is time,” his assistant says.

“Time to go?” I ask. But before she can answer, a voice comes over the speaker, and a thousand workers step from their stations. Club music pounds over crackling speakers. The voice directs calisthenics. Workers stretch their arms, necks, and legs. The voice stops after a few minutes, and the workers get back to making our pants.

If there were a bluejean machine, it probably wouldn’t need a break.

• • •

Across Phnom Penh at the city dump, it’s difficult to distinguish people from trash. Black boots, standing and waiting, look like discarded trash bags. Hands in yellow rubber gloves, picking and sorting, look like slimy banana peels.
A truck approaches and is swarmed by scavengers. They don’t push and shove; they jostle. There is etiquette for everything, even this.

The scavengers have magic wands with hooks on the end that they wave through the trash. Anything plastic, they immediately shove into their bags, which once held rice, cement, or flour. Anything else of interest, they consider – treasure or trash? – and then discard or keep.

Many of them are from the provinces where they were unable to provide for their families and had heard about the opportunity at the dump. They left their villages where the air is fresh, the space is vast, and the options nil. Two thousand trash scavengers live here and earn less than $1 per day collecting recyclables.

They chose to come here, seeking a better life. I wonder if this is it. There’s fire. Smoldering trash spills forth acrid smoke. There’s brimstone. This is hell on earth. As I walk away, I don’t cover my nose. I don’t want to reveal that what they do and where they do it sickens me.

I look up the bank of trash to my left and see that I’m being watched by a group of kids. They sit in trash and pick idly at the trash around them.

Making bluejeans six days a week and getting paid $50 per month – half of which they send home so their families can eat – doesn’t sound like much of a life to me.

This isn’t something I would ever have thought before, but I hope that someday these kids are given the opportunity to make bluejeans. Sure, I hope they don’t have to pay a bribe to get the job. I hope they’re paid a fair wage. But, in Cambodia, there are far worse existences than that of a garment worker.

At the dump, one person’s trash is another’s treasure. And in Cambodia, one person’s sweatshop is another’s opportunity.

• • •

I’ve got $20 in my pocket, and Arifa could use it more than me. She’s a garment worker and a single mother in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with her 4-year-old daughter and her 11-year-old son.

She is going to lead me to her factory to meet some of the laborers getting off work.

The garment industry accounts for three-fourths of Bangladesh’s exports. Many economists believe that it offers Bangladeshis a way out of extreme poverty. They might be right, but after spending the day with Arifa, it’s hard to imagine. Her sixth-floor apartment is constructed out of anything and everything. Cardboard insulates the roof and the walls. The studs are bamboo, the floor concrete. The room’s single window is just an asymmetrical square cut in the sheet metal siding. It’s covered by a shredded curtain – a heartbreaking attempt to spruce up the place.

While Arifa prepared lunch over a gas stove, I gave in to the heat and fell asleep on one of the room’s bamboo beds. When I woke, I had a pillow under my head and a fan directed on me.

I’ve been looking for a moment to give her that $20 bill, but so far it hasn’t felt right. I don’t want to insult her. But my chances are growing fewer.

When we set out for the factory, the sun is low and turns the rush-hour dust pink. Some guy, maybe her boyfriend, meets up with us. He’s creepy in a Lurch sort of way. The closer we get to the factory, the more crowded the streets become, with a stream of workers and vehicles jockeying for position. To me it’s chaos. To them it’s 6 o’clock.

Arifa stops short of the factory gate. Any farther, and my presence might cause a problem. The factory owners wouldn’t welcome a consumer concerned about their workers.

When the sun sets on my day with Arifa and her co-workers. she flags me a taxi. The first is too expensive, and she sends it packing. The next, she bargains down. Whether a pillow under the head, a fan directed on me, or saving me a few cents to get back to my hotel, Arifa looked after me the entire day.

This is my last chance. I finger the bill in my pocket – equivalent to a month’s wages for Arifa. I look at Lurch standing. I’d just hand her the money, but he might question what she has done to earn it. I pull my hand out empty and wave goodbye. She waves back and disappears – just another garment worker.

• • •

This year when I sit with my family around the tree and hold up that “lovely” new Christmas sweater from my aunt, I’ll check the tag and pause for a moment to think about who made it; because when it comes to clothing, others make it, and we have it made. And there’s a big, big difference.

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