Meet the People Who Made Your Clothes

The following is a guest blog by Kelsey Timmerman of Travelin Light | Blog

During my research for my book Where am I Wearing: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People that Make Our Clothes I met a lot of garment workers. Allow me to introduce you to a few of them:

Arifa holding her daughter Sadia

Dhaka, Bangladesh
Quote: “Their father was a crook, and the government doesn’t take care of my children. It’s not like the USA or the UK.”

Arifa is a single mother. She lives on the sixth floor of a crumbling apartment building in Dhaka with her daughter Sadia, 4, and her son Abir, 11. She has another son, Arman, 18, who went to Saudi Arabia to work. He sends half of his money home to help his mom and siblings Arifa works at a nearby garment factory where she earns $24/month. A trip through the market is enough to show that Arifa is well respected by all and feared by merchants, who don’t dare bargain with her.

Nari (left) with roommates

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Quote: “The workers at beauty salons make less than garment workers, but I will be an owner and make more.”

Nari works at a factory that makes blue jeans. She shares an 8’ X 12’ apartment with seven other girls. Four of the girls sleep on a bamboo bed and the other four sleep on the concrete floor. Nari irons jeans. It’s a job that she had to pay a $50 bribe – a month’s wage – to get. Fifty dollars is probably enough for one person in Cambodia to live on, but Nari, like many of the garment workers in Cambodia, supports her family of six. She is attending beauty school and hopes to open her own salon someday. She doesn’t like bowling.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Quote: “I miss working and talking in the rice fields. At the factory, we aren’t allowed to talk. The bosses want us to work as quickly as possible.”

Ai shares an apartment with Nari and works at the same factory. She is a checker, looking for flaws. Eighty-five people have a hand in sewing together a single pair of blue jeans, and Ai makes sure that no one screwed up. Like many garment workers, she lives far from her home village and rarely visits; a six-day workweek won’t allow it. Ai doesn’t have a contract with the factory, which means she doesn’t have the same rights as other workers. She can be fired for absolutely no reason. She supports six people on her wage of $55/month. She owns a Tweety Bird shirt, but has no idea who Tweety Bird is.

Zhu Chun (left), Dewan (right)

Dewan and Zhu Chun
Guangzhou, China
Quote by Zhu Chun: “One thing is for sure. I don’t want (my son) to come here to work in the factory. I just want him to study, because people like us who don’t have knowledge have to work very hard.”

Dewan and Zhu Chun moved from their village 600-miles away to Guangzhou to get a job at a factory making shoes. They haven’t seen their 13 year-old-son in three years. The original plan was to work a few years to pay off the home they built in their village, but Dewan’s mother got sick and died. Now they have a house and expensive medical bills to pay off. A few years have become a few more. The law limits their workweek to 44 hours, but they often work more than a hundred. Neither one of them has eaten cheese.

Debbie holding the author's favorite shorts

Perry, New York
Quote: “They would have to push me out the door to get me to leave.”

Debbie’s job working for Champion was supposed to be a filler between college and whatever she decided to do next. Twenty-eight years later she is still working at the factory, which is no longer owned by Champion. In 2002 Champion moved the factory’s work and hundreds of jobs to Mexico. Lucky for Debbie the community of Perry pulled together and a new company, American Classic Outfitters, was born from the ashes of Champion. You’ve seen Debbie’s and ACO’s work. They make uniforms for 16 of the 30 NBA teams, all of the WNBA, 73 colleges, and 3 NFL teams.

Kelsey Timmerman is the author of Where am I Wearing. From the inside flap:

Ninety-seven percent of our clothes are made overseas. Yet globalization makes it difficult to know much about the origin of the products we buy—beyond the standard "Made in" label. So journalist and blogger Kelsey Timmerman decided to visit each of the countries and factories where his five favorite items of clothing were made and meet the workers. He knew the basics of globalized labor—the forces, processes, economics, and politics at work. But what was lost among all those facts and numbers was an understanding of the lives, personalities, hopes, and dreams of the people who made his clothes.

In Bangladesh, he went undercover as an under-wear buyer, witnessed the child labor industry in action, and spent the day with a single mother who was forced to send her eldest son to Saudi Arabia to help support her family. In Cambodia, he learned the difference between those who wear Levi's and those who make them. In China, he saw the costs of globalization and the dark side of the Chinese economic miracle.

Kelsey's blog is full of neat tidbits from the book. Don't miss the Underwear Wall of Fame and his informal survey of where people's T-shirts were made.

Oh, one more thing: his wife Annie just gave birth to the couple's first child, Harper Willow Timmerman, on January 6, 2009. She's very cute! (Congrats Kelsey!)

Are you an author and would like your books promoted on Neatorama? Let's talk about a possible guest blog post just like this one!

Newest 5
Newest 5 Comments

With regard to your story about Debbie in New York. I have an "American Classics" shirt - it is very well made - I bought it at Wallymart for $12.00. The label says made in Bangladesh? When I read the story I thought it was great and that my shirt maybe came from New York and this would explain the good quality. Do you think my Wallymart shirt comes from a different company with the same name?

I wonder how much the shirt really cost to make? Surely they have the money to the seamstress and then the graft to the local town and the government and then custom charges.

Do you think it possible that Americans could do these jobs on a contractor / piece work type program and still sell the shirt for 12.00?
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hi iam looking to have my own branded clothing range made, but after looking on here i don't want people working for peanuts to achieve this.
can some one point me in the right direction for fair trade clothing manufactures please.
Chris England
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Jan 12th, 2009 at 3:50 am

All I have to say is that disgust me. They make $24 dollars a month breaking their backs just for us to put a shirt on our backs. At what expense do we value the quality of lives of others for sewn up fabric to wear."

Yes, but consider that because of corrupt governments and failing economy, most other jobs pay even smaller amounts. $24 a month may seem like nothing to us but in poorer countries it's a pretty good amount of cash. Especially in places like El Salvador, and most other South American countries.
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i can't believe it, soo why Giorgio Armani, Juicy Couture and some brands they said don't buy from china manufactory are fake when they made from them,, that's redicules sooo now i'm not gonna spend $300 usd in 1 handbag when i can buy 10 the same price and all are made in china and other countries.
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Im studying the global fashion industry in school and some of the stuff i have been told is very disturbing. Though I do notce a lot of people buy clothes without knowing where it comes from. My friends are very aware, and by all costs do not shop at clothes that they know support child labour and "sweatshops" e.g primark. I think we should stop being so ignorant and put ourselves in the position that the workers would be. Is it so hard to care for someone? @Ray Your So cold hearted and sorry to say but you need a reality check.
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