Marthe Holkestad discovers the grim reality of cheap clothing with documentary star, Anniken Jorgensen.
From Top Shop to H&M, River Island to Primark to Forever 21: we dress depending on the weather, our plans or how we are feeling. Yet the question of where the clothes have come from and at what cost, remains on the back burner. Ethical clothing is still just a light teatime discussion and not one we actively pursue.
Broadly speaking, Western society, with its consumer ideology, has been conditioned with the attitude of ‘more, more, more’. Corporate clothing giants seek to exploit impoverished countries plighted by poor human rights, justified by a need to meet the hyper-demands of consumers. In business terms it’s just minimising expenditure and maximising profit. The question of morality: a distant whisper. Clothing companies are like bees flying to the honey pot of sweatshops, in places such as Asia and Africa, taking advantage of the cripplingly low wages and unregulated hours of the workers.
Although concerns have been raised for sweatshop workers, many of us tend to forget or simply ignore it. In reaction to this, a five-part mini documentary called ‘Sweatshop – Deadly Cheap Fashion’ was produced by one of Norway’s largest newspapers, Aftenposten, documenting the journey of two girls and one boy as they travelled to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, to live the life of local textile workers.
One of the young adults that participated in the mini series was 17 year old Anniken Jørgensen, wishing to uncover the more harrowing side of the textiles industry. She soon found herself in the crowded, dusty streets of Phnom Penh.
Photo credit: Anniken Jørgense
“The first thing that hit me was all the people and the soil covering the streets. It might sound strange, but the sky almost always looked grey because of all the dust,” she said.
The participants in the documentary were told not to do a large amount of research before the filming started, perhaps in order to catch the raw, emotional reactions on camera and to make the experience as authentic as possible.
“I didn’t prepare at all. We were told not to, which is almost certainly why everything was such a shock to me.”
Sweatshops are known to be small with unacceptable working conditions and Jørgensen revealed: “There were a lot of things going through my head the first time I walked in the front door of the factory where I was supposed to work. It was dirty, hot, smelly and everyone sat cramped around sewing machines.”
She elaborated on the day as a textile worker and admittedly, it did not sound like anything us on this side of the planet would put up with. We are constantly fighting for better working conditions and higher salaries, yet arguably our working environment is heavenly compared to the hellish conditions of third world sweat shops. There are comfortable desks and chairs, the air is regulated and we’re able to refuel on coffee, water or food if necessary.
Try to imagine yourself at a beach, where the temperature makes the sweat run down your face and neck, leading you to take a drink more often than usual. Then imagine what it would be like to have to work for a minimum of seven hours in that heat with no air-conditioning. The stool you’re sitting on is crippling your back. You constantly feel numb and tired. This is the reality for people working in a sweatshop. For Jørgensen, this was a wake-up call.
Photo credit: Takepart.com
“Sitting on a stool for 7 hours might seem easier than it is. We were doing the same movements over and over again, and it was unbearable. It was very tiring.”
During their time in Phnom Penh, the Norwegians had to live in the home of a textile worker one night, in cramped conditions. The following day, they went shopping to compare prices, and realised that a Zara jacket cost a year’s salary for the people who had laboured to make it.
The sad irony is that the clothes we purchase without a second thought are made by people who can’t afford to buy them. Their salaries only stretch to cover the bare minimum: rent, electricity and food. Retail shopping is a fantasy.
It is clear that the life of a textile worker is not a walk in the park. When talking about what we can do to change the exploitation, Jørgensen exclaimed we need to spread the word.
It is not something that will change over night, but we need to “act on what we have discovered and stop looking the other way.”