What not to wear: a look at brand name clothes and the women who make them

I’ve had a lot of nicknames in my life, but no doubt the strangest one came in university when my roommates started jokingly calling me ‘No Logo’ – a reference to Naomi Klein’s book on pervasive corporate branding and sweat shops. I wasn’t exactly vocal about it, but I preferred my clothes not to look like a billboard ad – especially one that had been sewn together in a factory full of kids. I guess my friends thought that was quirky.

Flash ahead to last year as I was preparing to leave home for Cambodia, a country whose economy is largely driven by its garment industry. Without thinking, I stocked my suitcase full of plain white T-shirts I bought for $10 each at H&M – only to arrive my first week and read that hundreds of female workers had just fainted at a local factory that supplies them. And it was far from the first case – similar incidents had occurred at a number of factories in Cambodia that supplied companies like the Gap, Levis, and Puma.

I remember venting about it with a friend from home. I didn’t want to feel complicit, but I couldn’t help it. “So what are you supposed to do,” he asked, “wear a burlap sack?”

Good question. Even when we want to do the right thing, the complexity of the global supply chain often makes it difficult to know what the right thing is. It’s kind of like showing up in the Congo with a Nikon camera to show the injustice of kids digging up conflict-minerals for electronics.

Navigating the system may be tricky, but when people’s lives are involved, it’s worth stopping to ask what’s behind the products we buy. And the reality is, in Cambodia, it’s not at all uncommon for female garment workers to faint by the hundreds while making clothes destined for abroad.

The latest incident happened just this week – this time in a factory that supplies Nike, a multinational sports label I’m guessing you’ve heard of. More than 100 female workers fainted on Wednesday, and sadly, it wasn’t a one-off. It happened again two days later in the same factory, only this time, nearly 200 women fell.

On Friday, I went to the local hospital where the women were taken for treatment. There weren’t enough beds in the emergency ward for everyone, so rows of women were strewn across the floor as intravenous drips pumped fluid into their veins. One woman collapsed outside the ward and had to be carried to one of the last remaining spots in the corner.

I spoke to Chay Ny, a 24-year-old worker who was lucky enough to receive a bed in the ward. She said she came to work that morning feeling fine, but after only a short time she started to feel short of breath and collapsed. Thirty-three-year-old Pang Simourn recalled how she tried to help another fainted worker, but soon collapsed as well.

So, why do they faint? The jury is still out on that one. Despite the startling frequency of these incidents, rarely does anyone offer a solid conclusion as to why the women “mysteriously” drop. Often, the issue is chalked up to “mass-hysteria.” Just a bunch of hormonal women, at it again.

Even if the symptoms express themselves psychologically, there must be an underlying cause – one that is allowing this ‘inexplicable phenomenon’ to persist. The conditions under which the garments are made need to be more closely examined.

In Cambodia, 90 percent of garment factory workers are women. Often, they’ve moved to the city from poor, rural areas in hope of supporting their families back home. Instead, they take on a series of temporary contracts that offer them little job security or benefits. In the factories, many endure harmful chemicals, poor ventilation, and long hours. For their efforts they receive around 2 USD a day.

I took a look online last week to see if any reports of this week’s faintings had made it into international press. I found a few. Styleite magazine filed the report in their “WTF” section, sandwiched in between articles about Rhianna rumors and how to expertly apply mounds of make-up to achieve the “no-make-up look.” With little call for self-reflection, New York Magazine published a lone paragraph in its fashion section. The text linked to another report on how Cambodian police recently attacked three female garment workers for attempting to demand a higher wage. The report opened with the statement, “Well, this sounds terrible.”

Um … yah, it does.

But if “this sounds terrible,” and “what the fuck,” are all we can think of to say or do, then we’re not exactly going to help change much. Instead of inspiring you to give up in frustration or resign yourself to a life in burlap, I hope this post is a small start to making clearer connections between certain brands of clothes and the lives of the people who make them.

Below are my photos from the hospital in Kampong Speu, Cambodia, after nearly 200 female workers fainted in a factory that supplies Nike.

This story is the first in a series on the garment industry. To continue reading, click here: Part 2

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