Whose hands? Your clothes hold stories

The sewing machine motor surged again and again, a comforting rhythm as I closed my eyes and sank into sleep. A few days before, a pile of red blazers had appeared on the table by my mother’s curvy, black Singer, a complicated contraption with gold lettering on it. I was four years old, and Mum had been hired to do piecework for a clothing manufacturer. Only after I was in bed did she have time to get to work on the blazers, attaching the sleeves and sewing in the labels.

The memory of that came back to me last night, as I folded the clothes in our laundry basket and checked the labels to see where they were made.

It was, of course, April’s horrendous building collapse at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh that focused my attention and made me think that the very least I can do is notice where my clothing comes from.

In Bangladesh, it’s common practice to build multistory buildings, with different factories— separate legal entities— within. The Rana Plaza building housed five factories within its nine floors. There are apparently irresistible tax incentives in Bangladesh for building owners to keep stacking additional stories on their buildings, regardless of whether that resulting structure is sound and complies with safety codes.

As with so many things that happen on the other side of the world— buses packed full of people that skid off steep cliffs, overburdened ferries that sink and take nearly all passengers down with them— it was easy to spend a few minutes watching the video footage of that horrendous building failure and then turn my attention to something else entirely. Which is pretty much what I did.

I’m still not sure what my responsibility is in all this, because a boycott of clothing made in Bangladesh would be financially disastrous for the very people we’d like to protect.

While going through our laundry basket, I found items that had come to us from China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Jordan, and Egypt. No doubt, there are sweatshops in these countries, too. That’s why manufacturers have chosen those places: because they don’t have to provide the same level of pay and safety standards that make the United States such an expensive place to manufacture anything.

But when the average hourly wage for a garment worker is, as it is in Bangladesh, between 10 and 30 cents an hour, and when they work in factories that often have no windows or other means of escape in an emergency, I suspect we can all agree that a line has been crossed. My need for cheap clothing does not trump their need to earn a decent wage, and to not work in a death trap.

The only thing I found in that basket with a “Made in Bangladesh” label was a pair of pajamas. Sleeveless, with a tiny leopard print, and black lace trim.

As I folded them, I wondered whether they were made in the factory where all those people died. The final body count was over a thousand. Hard to imagine. But there was more housework to do, and my mind turned to other things.

Then, late last night, as I lay in bed, snug in my summer PJs, I ran my fingers along the lace trim around the neckline. I remembered a prom dress my mother altered for me, one with a lace bodice. She did such a careful job, using both her sewing machine and hand stitching, that it looked like a new dress, instead of a re-do of the dress I’d worn to another prom the year before.

Whose hands assembled the pajamas I was now wearing? Who lowered the presser foot onto the black trim and attached that lace to the soft fabric now next to my skin? It was someone in that country, in Bangladesh. Someone’s mother, grandmother, or daughter. Someone’s wife, best friend, neighbor.

As I lay there, on the edge of sleep, I imagined a woman with skin much darker than mine, a woman with long hair, colorful clothing, hunched over a machine, sewing this black lace onto my pajama top.

Maybe she was working in that precarious house of cards, the one stacked so high with profitable factories that it collapsed under its own weight. Maybe there was a four-year-old waiting for her to come home.

I have no idea how to solve this problem, what to do about immorally unsafe working conditions for the people around the world whose hands have touched and produced the material goods that bring comfort and convenience into my life.

Up until a few generations ago, you knew who made your clothing, who wove your laundry basket, who carved and nailed together the wardrobe you kept it all in. Chances are, it was someone in your own family.

No more. When our stuff is made on the other side of the planet, it’s easy to imagine it all happens by machine, or magic, without human labor. To care about the working conditions of those unseen hands requires imagination, effort, and time.

Apart from applying pressure to retailers to show that they’re improving working conditions, I don’t know what to do about this. Even then, I don’t know what form that pressure should take.

While drifting off to sleep, I envisioned that woman’s final moments, as the building groaned, the floor beneath her feet gave way, and the floors above her head crashed down on her. What if it had been me? What if I’d been the one with the long dark hair and the bright sari, praying for a miracle?


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Nice one Janis!

Beautifully written, tearfully moving essay - thanks Janis for raising our awareness and drawing attention to the interconnections among us all .

The solution starts with enforcing building codes and worklpace safety conditions which the US could require in order to obtain a license to import. Then when the factories are forced to meet those standards they will raise prices to cover it.

We all want cheap in this country, cheap in everything. Cheap translates to slave wages for the workers, however unseen. So we all in truth want only to pay slave wages for everything we can, but we'd like it sanitized because we are after all the most virtuous and tender hearted people in the world, aren't we?
Back in the day we kept it closer to home....


And there was more...