"What kind of life is this?"
January 26, 2015 5:42 PM   Subscribe

Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, flew teenage fashion bloggers, Anniken Jørgensen, Frida Ottesen and Ludvig Hambro, to the Southeast Asian country’s capital of Phnom Penh, where they experienced a modicum of a Cambodian textile worker’s life for a month in 2014. Their experience is the subject of a five-part reality show available online, titled "Sweatshop - Deadly Fashion."

Brief highlights from each episode may be found here: Reality Show Sends Fashion Bloggers to Work in Cambodian Sweatshop.
posted by gemutlichkeit (37 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ugh.
posted by ageispolis at 6:20 PM on January 26, 2015


Cool, so now I'll be crying for the rest of the day at work.

Thank you so much for posting this.
posted by Wataki at 6:26 PM on January 26, 2015


I would love to imagine a major US news outlet doing something similar with Bethany Mota (though she might well be savvy about these issues already).
posted by Going To Maine at 6:28 PM on January 26, 2015


Phnom Penh. ( last year)
The leaders of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) confirmed their purpose to ask for the resignation of P.M. Hun Sen and call on new elections, while supporting the campaign of garment factory unions for a 160 USD salary and a reform to the Cambodian rules for the freedom of association. “
posted by clavdivs at 6:41 PM on January 26, 2015


The Dutch East India Company to Forever 21, Goldman Sachs to Citibank... Someone with less money is being enslaved, no matter where you decide to film. Probably who makes your Dior shirt, or your Hugo Boss, sure. But look up the chain instead of down, and probably even you.
posted by four panels at 7:04 PM on January 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


I've been to Cambodia, and specifically, Phnom Penh.

The poverty is insanely mind blowing. I still have nightmares about the kids picking food off of flyblown garbage piles.

Working in a factory? Make sure you don't drink the water. Some of the poorest kids have orange hair. It's orange because they're in the sun all day.

Anecdote Filter: My cousin said to me the first day I was there, "I know you want to give that kid a $20 bill, but he can't use it here, he'd just run to his parents, they'd try to buy drugs with it, and some pusher would take the money and rifle stroke the parent. Give him this bill that's worth less than a penny. They can eat with that." I wanted to give everything I had to those kids, but because at the time that would have been about thirty five hundred bucks, a second floor apartment with three monitors and a used Buick in St. Paul, so I tried to give a little to a lot. They wouldn't take the dollar coins, but I brought fifty pristine two dollar bills to Cambodia in 2009, and I left with none of them. I feel so fucking bourgeoisie, but when you give a stupidly poor kid a 100% tip for grabbing you two beers, and their eyes light up, that can't be bad, right? She can't drive my Buick, she's in Cambodia.
posted by Sphinx at 7:07 PM on January 26, 2015 [12 favorites]


Some of the poorest kids have orange hair. It's orange because they're in the sun all day.

Or kwashiorkor, protein malnutrition.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:12 PM on January 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


There was a great interview with Joshua Oppenheimer, who directed The Act of Killing, in which he says that we're all basically complicit in the mass exploitation of human life, every day, all the time. He compares all of us to one of the subjects of the film who carried out mass killings:
And I think we are more like Anwar than we want to believe. The clothes we wear are haunted by the repressive conditions in the places that they were made, that make them so cheap and affordable to us.

Everything — including the computer I’m talking into to record this interview — is haunted by the conditions of the people who made it. All over the world, there are men like Anwar enforcing those conditions. We are maybe not as close to the slaughter as Anwar, but we are partaking of it.
The worst part for someone here is that it's so hard to escape this complicity; pretty much everyone in the garment industry uses this kind of labor. It's enough to make you feel completely helpless, to know that this sort of place is where your clothes came from no matter where you bought them. No matter how much you hate capitalism, you almost certainly own at least a couple somethings, if not many, that were made at the cost of other peoples' lives.
posted by teponaztli at 7:29 PM on January 26, 2015 [17 favorites]


I often think about our complicity. About how my life is good because people are extracting goodness from the lives of others. Sometimes I think that part of becoming an adult is coming to terms with this inequality. And then i write sentences like that and want to just quit everything. So I quit thinking about it.
posted by rebent at 8:20 PM on January 26, 2015 [10 favorites]


The blond/orange hair isn't that common anymore. I freaked out over a kid I'm close to when we met up again and he had orange hair only to have him crack up laughing because it was a sister experimenting with bleach on her little brother's hair. It feels like over processed permed hair though, really weird when it's growing out as they get better nutrition.

This was a really good piece of media reporting - researched and thoughtful and looking at the complexity through the lens of people trying to understand other people, not a drive-by spectator pity party. I loveLOVE that they come to understand that there is real distress and grief in these women's lives over the grinding poverty and social problems, and the choices are hard to make, that they're not smiling or crying but complicated humans too.

The garment factory unions in Cambodia have been pushing for higher wages and they've gotten to US$121 I heard this month. Double-edged for me because we peg our pay scale to the garment factory as a minimum wage and every bump up means payroll which is nearly 50% of my budget goes up, but it is good news overall.

Talking with a colleague who also works in the Cambodian slums and she watched the final episode three times and is really upset about her own purchasing of clothes and is now searching for decent fair trade labels available here, which is a good outcome.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:26 PM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Perhaps buy a Krama from a reputable place/site. I have a blue one. They come in red or blue. The colors do not symbolize anything political-political but rather the countries traditional colors.

101 uses for a Krama.
posted by clavdivs at 8:38 PM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


That our global system of exchanging goods and services for cash is pretty much agreed on as terribly flawed. Flawed as in: people are dying.

Proposed solutions in the face of such a complex, entrenched, and opaque system, at least to those outside of the mercantile class, seem impossible to envision for most of us. Changing the System seems as futile as it did in the early 70's, when things started to go sour for many of us. Strikes, the Occupy movement, strategies to enact livable wages for those hard-working people who make the criminally-sub-minimum wage which is called minimum wage but does not support even a marginally meaningful life…these movements indicate a shift in our (America's) perspective. They show hope.

To not address the situation of - what, 25%, 37%? - of America's population who are a paycheck away from homelessness - is a terrible position in which to find oneself. What is to Be Done?

Don't you want to do something other than vote for the Democrats? I do.
posted by kozad at 8:44 PM on January 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


Heartbreaking! Damn the corporate greedballs that let this happen and shame on us (collectively, the developed world) for contributing to the plight of slaves. Yes, they are slaves, because unless they do backbreaking work for inhuman hours, in in human conditions, they don't eat; they can't live.

Apologists for this outrage are wont to say "hey, it's better than putting in 15 hours a day planting and harvesting rice". The point is how much better? We have a long way to go before we can claim our species is any better than any other species.
posted by Vibrissae at 8:51 PM on January 26, 2015


It may actually be better than planting and harvesting rice; Nicholas Kristof certainly believes this is why so many people are drawn to this sort of work in spite of its horrible conditions. Still, the question is why would this sort of work be better, and why should we do nothing about just because it's marginally better than something else?
posted by teponaztli at 9:04 PM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Kristof is a neoliberal bully boy with a saviour complex when it concerns young, attractive women but no time for anybody else. Fsck him.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:42 PM on January 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


Paste Magazine had an articel on this as well which talked briefly about how the series could be seen as poverty/exploitation tourism:
The series has already sparked debate over not just the obviously horrific conditions in the sweatshops that Norwegian bloggers Frida, Ludvig and Anniken visit, but over the ethics of the series itself, which could be seen as bordering on third-world exploitation.
But of course the counter argument is that without rubbing our noses in this sort of exploitation, happening far away and invisible to us western customers, without using well, white people as standins, this won't get much attention.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:48 PM on January 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


why should we do nothing about just because it's marginally better than something else?
We should do something about it. We don't because we like our cheap consumer goods. I don't know what the result would be if we all decided to stop buying those cheap goods that are made using slave labour, but I'm not sure that it would result in those currently being exploited having their lives made any better and could make them much worse off if the market for what they produce dried up.
posted by dg at 10:59 PM on January 26, 2015


Let's say that I, as someone who buys cheap and relatively disposable clothes, would like to start investing in some clothing items that are as non-exploitative and long-lasting as possible. (Because I usually buy cheap and relatively disposable because I don't have a lot of money to spend on clothes at any given time). What are some options? Where should I look?
posted by treepour at 11:46 PM on January 26, 2015


Just buy used stuff whenever possible, treepour. If you enjoy travel and do so cheaply, then buy cheap locally made products while traveling.

Ain't so realistic for clothing but I avoid buying from western stores whenever possible. If you need say a flashlight and batteries for camping, then adjust your time preference, recognize that need 1-2 months before going camping, and order them directly from China via aliexpress, ebay, etc. Why should any western company with a hand in outsourcing the production profit?
posted by jeffburdges at 11:57 PM on January 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


Treepour - depends on where you live but you can start here .
posted by longbaugh at 11:59 PM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


You should remember that capitalism, communism, etc. all make farmers' lives worse by controlling how they can sell their goods, teponaztli, which artificially creates relative benefits for sweatshop labor.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:02 AM on January 27, 2015


I would watch reality TV if this was the kind of content that was being produced.
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 1:13 AM on January 27, 2015


I think Sweet Honey In The Rock covered this topic in the 80s: "Are my Hands Clean?"
posted by Dreidl at 1:53 AM on January 27, 2015


I would watch reality TV if this was the kind of content that was being produced.
This is not reality TV, even with the most generous of interpretations. I got through 2 full episodes and bailed in the third when the blond girl started talking about how the work is 'not physically demanding' and 'it's easier for them because they are used to it (referring to conditions, not the work itself)'.
posted by dg at 2:09 AM on January 27, 2015


So, because a 17-year-old has unrealistic expectations and perhaps doesn't want to see what she is being shown, it can't be reality TV? I don't quite get your point, to be honest.
posted by brokkr at 2:28 AM on January 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


And the proposed solution is..........Much gnashing of teeth, righteous indignation, bemoaning the capitalism and exploitation. Capital inevitably drifts towards cheap(er) labor--it always has and probably always will. Why: consumers want affordable products, new technologies, to own homes, save money, invest money, grow principal. And very important, as capital drifts/moves to cheaper labor that labor starts to develop and then one has a developing country. If one wants a higher standard of living for global citizens (as is happening) a predictable early component is the transfer of capital (money/technology/knowledge/infrastructure) to sites of cheaper labor--an exploited class> poor working class>a working class>a lower income middle class etc. I am saying these things not because I like them, agree with them or think they are morally correct. I just do not know what are realistic alternatives. The wealth accumulated by investors through the exploitation of cheap labor may go to buy obscene yachts, gold plated bathroom fixtures and 50 million Euro/GBP/USD flats but it also goes to the next labor market to facilitate development. It builds infrastructure, relocates technology and knowledge. Certainly it can and should be fairer, better regulated and moderated but if one ones development in poor labor markets it is hard to do it other ways. One can take this as an endorsement of what happens--it is not--I just am unaware of realistic alternatives. The standard of living for the "average" citizen in India, China SE Asia, Mexico, Brazil etc substantially increased in the last 50 years. This did not occur without the initial exploitation of cheap labor and capital investment. I may not be correct, and I welcome alternatives but this is what I see
posted by rmhsinc at 4:21 AM on January 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Sometimes I think that part of becoming an adult is coming to terms with this inequality.

Maturity is accepting that you benefit from the suffering of others?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:17 AM on January 27, 2015


Why should any western company with a hand in outsourcing the production profit?

I've looked inside electronics that are branded by major manufacturers and cheap Ali Express quality ones. Reading between the lines, there's an awful lot more unpleasant dirty work going into the off brand things (mountains of glue, lots of manual soldering, etc). I have no reason to suspect that it's different for garments: If you want to make stuff consistent enough to be sold as branded, your quality control needs mean you have to make the work environment consistent, which as a side effect will probably make it less harmful for your workers.
posted by ambrosen at 6:17 AM on January 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Maturity is often held up as an ideal, an evolution, a more enlightened state of being.

But maybe being mature just means being old and evil in different ways. When i was young i had no empathy and was very cruel. Now that I'm old, I have empathy, and still can't seem to avoid being cruel.
posted by rebent at 6:28 AM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


What Ambrosen said.
International accreditation standards improve the safety of the product as well as raising working conditions. You cannot build ROHS compliant electronics in squalor.
Most reputable brands have Social Compliance programs. Look it up on the corporate web site.
posted by ohshenandoah at 6:30 AM on January 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


treepour: "What are some options? Where should I look?"

If you're in the US, a surprisingly good person to ask is your mailman. They're unionized and their union pushes a lot of "union solidarity" in terms of buying US-made and union-made clothing and other goods. Mine always has a line on which stores in town carry the best clothes for responsible shopping.

You can also look through Responsible Shopper, which lets you look at mass-market retailers and brands, and while there isn't always a "good" option, you can choose the "least bad" from among what's available to you locally. It rates them on a variety of criteria (like environmentalism, use of sweatshop goods, treatment of US employees, women's rights, etc.) so you can survey the areas that are important to you, and it gives you specific information about why they're being rated well or poorly. It's definitely worth e-mailing corporate HQ and saying, "I've recently reviewed my options and I am choosing to shop at your grocery store because of your good record on migrant labor rights. Thank you for doing well on that and please keep it up. It'd be good if you improved on environmentalism, though, please consider permeable parking lots." Big corporations should know that individual consumers are looking at their record on human rights and making decisions that way.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:17 AM on January 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


treepour: "What are some options? Where should I look?
Google "fair trade" and you will find plenty of links. Ready available are coffee, clothing, jewelry, tea, and knitting yarn (my favorite).
posted by francesca too at 9:28 AM on January 27, 2015


"I know you want to give that kid a $20 bill, but he can't use it here, he'd just run to his parents, they'd try to buy drugs with it, and some pusher would take the money and rifle stroke the parent. Give him this bill that's worth less than a penny. They can eat with that."
I hope you don't buy into that paternalistic bullshit. Have you noticed how people with money always seem to know better about what poor people need than poor people do themselves? Wealthy people seem to think poor people need everything except money. And, isn't that always the assumption about poor people - that they'll only buy drink or drugs, given the chance? It may also be worth pointing out that "drug pushers" make their money by giving their customers what they want, not by robbing and beating them. That would be an unsustainable business model.
posted by sudon't at 12:11 PM on January 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I hope you don't buy into that paternalistic bullshit. Have you noticed how people with money always seem to know better about what poor people need than poor people do themselves?

Assuming a 1:1 correspondence between first and third world poverty is a bad idea.
posted by Going To Maine at 12:29 PM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


So, because a 17-year-old has unrealistic expectations and perhaps doesn't want to see what she is being shown, it can't be reality TV? I don't quite get your point, to be honest.
Sorry, I didn't really make my point well at all there. The show is 'reality' TV in the same way that Big Brother or Survivor are 'reality' TV in that, while the TV stations categorise it that way, there's no actual connection with reality involved. Sitting at a sewing machine for a couple of hours chatting to a camera and laughing about how terrible your sewing is is not the reality that sweat shop workers live in. Camping out on the floor for one night while chatting and joking with your friends is not the reality that genuinely poor people live in.

For someone who used to spend €600 per month on clothes until she became a famous blogger and people started giving her all the free clothes she wants to say that it's OK for workers to have to sit on a stool all day because they sit on stools at home just underlines the continuing disconnect between the two lives and that, despite the 'reality' tag, the three adventurers have not experienced any of the actual reality that is being a garment worker. They've been exposed to it, sure, but it's still not reality when you play at something for a few hours. It's reality when you do it your whole life and there's absolutely no alternative for you unless you just give up and die.
posted by dg at 1:22 PM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sudon't, it really is a terrible idea to give cash to children begging on the streets outside of rare cases like an active civil unrest where there may be no alternative for that child. You're creating demand for the children to keep on street begging where they are in danger of traffic accidents, violence and abuse, instead of in school or at home. Ditto for child vendors. I have relatives and friends who were forced to beg and sell trinkets to people as kids in Cambodia, and it was a grinding awful job that made them vulnerable to abuse and robbed them of a childhood that other happier and safer kids in the same poor neighbourhood got because they were a source of ready cash to exploitative family members.

Personally, I give cash only to elderly beggars in Cambodia and for kids, I will sometimes pay for a takeaway meal from a nearby vendor for them, but I never give cash or goods (they are just re-sold or ditched) to street kids and won't buy from them.
posted by viggorlijah at 5:15 PM on January 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


If anybody's seen both to compare, is the series that much different from Blood, Sweat and T-shirts from the beeb in 2008? Where several of the young people were at first obnoxiously resistant to acknowledging what a hard life workers in the garment industry had. "Why don't they just get an education and get a better job?" was typical of the sort of comment they'd make early on in the experience.

There's a few clips online but no complete episodes. I thought it was a very good example of youth programming i.e. enlightening for the target audience, many of whom seem to have no inkling of the real cost of cheap goods. For the rest, I agree that we're all living on the backs of the global poor, and I don't even know if it's possible to opt out of doing so. Individuals can make small gestures towards non-exploitation, refusing to buy new etc but: trade makes the world go round. It's been an engine of prosperity for hundreds of thousands of years. (There's a lot that's arguable in that statement I know.)

If only the idea of fair trade goes mainstream, and consumers start to insist that worker welfare has to be an overt part of the price payed for goods, and demand evidence that this is so, then maybe conditions can improve.
posted by glasseyes at 3:52 PM on January 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


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