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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.