Garment Industry / Labor Rights / News

Fashion Bloggers Work In Cambodian Sweatshop, Learn ‘We’re Rich Because They’re Poor’

by Eleanor Goldberg / Huffington Post

When three sprightly fashion bloggers from Norway agreed to star in a month-long reality show in Cambodia, they were probably expecting more “Project Runway,” and less human rights violations in a series produced by their country’s largest newspaper, Aftenposten.

But once Anniken Jorgensen, Frida Ottesen and Ludvig Hambro touched down in a cramped workroom in Phnom Penh, they quickly realized they weren’t in their cushy blogosphere anymore and would have to endure the harsh realities more than 500,000 workers there face, according to advocacy group Clean Clothes.

“The truth is, that we are rich because they’re poor,” Hambro said in the final episode of “Sweatshop.” “We are rich because it costs us 10 euros (about $11) to buy a T-shirt [at] H&M. But somebody else has to starve for you to be able to buy it.”

While Cambodia certainly isn’t the worst offender, laborers there face incredibly grim conditions.

The garment industry is Cambodia’s most lucrative export, and in 2012, it shipped more than $4 billion worth of products to the United States and Europe, according to the Associated Press.

But the industry’s workers toil six days a week and make just $100 a month, barely enough to cover their basic expenses, according to Clean Clothes. In addition to taking home a meager income, they also face unsafe working conditions, which have led to mass faintings and deaths in building collapses.

The three reality stars subject themselves to the same hardships their fellow laborers face. Though considering the fact that the textile company allowed cameras in, these workers probably have it better than most.

They traded their hotel room, for sleeping on a cold, hard floor. They subsisted on about $3 a day, and sewed the same exact seam on multitudes of garments eight hours a day.

H&M declined to be interviewed for the reality series, but issued a statement saying it acknowledges that wages in manufacturing countries, like Cambodia, are too low. It pointed to its plan set out to raise wages by 2018.

It’s tempting to slam these naïve bloggers for just dropping in on this underserved world, which they admit to having known little about.

But their candor about their ignorance and earnestness about doing their jobs and respecting their fellow workers allows the show to cut right through standard reality show antics.

When they pore over sewing machines that frequently break down, after having woken up at 5:30 a.m., they express their frustration. But they also recognize that they have to power through because the factory operates in an assembly line fashion.

“You just sit here and sew the same seam over and over and over again,” Ottesen said while seated at her station in the workroom. “Just as you finish one, a new one arrives.”

When a teenage worker reveals to Jorgensen that her mother died of starvation because the family couldn’t afford food, the blogger is so horrified, she can’t find the words to respond.

They admit their first lunch was “awkward” when they’re served plain rice and fish swarming with flies. But they button up and eat (at least some) of what’s put in front of them.

And while the series is sometimes peppered with first-world problems and some eye-roll inducing moments, this isn’t about exploiting the exploited, but about poignantly exposing the inhumane conditions shoppers unwittingly condone.

The show isn’t just about shock value.

The trio also meets with local activist Siang Yot who has endured beatings with iron rods and sticks, but remains committed to his work.

“We must fight with our heart,” Yot told them.

At the end of the series, the bloggers paid heed to Yot’s message.

“You can’t solve everything or fix such a global problem,” Jorgensen said. “But they really don’t ask for much — to get a bit more money, some fans in the ceiling in a factory. We just have to push to get it done.”

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