Many of us know on an intellectual level that most clothing retailers use sweatshop labour to create cheap, unsustainable "fast fashion." But how many of us know it on a gut level what it means to work in one of these factories? It may either be a striking example of poetic justice or a staged publicity stunt, but an eye-opening, online docu-series called Sweatshop: Dead Cheap Fashion follows what happens to three fashion-loving Norwegian teens, in reality TV style, as they are sent by Norway's Aftenposten newspaper to work in a Cambodian sweatshop.
The five short but eventful episodes show 17-year-old fashion blogger Anniken Jørgensen,19-year-old Frida Ottesen and 20-year-old Ludvig Hambro as they live, eat and work beside sweatshop employees. The series begins in Cambodia's captial, Phnom Penh, with the teenagers displaying typical, mainstream rationalizations about sweatshop labour: they believe that "these people" have always lived like this and don't know or aspire to anything better. "They've never seen Norwegian houses," says Jørgensen. "[At least] they have a job."
As the teenagers are put to work though, the everyday reality of their now-fellow workers sinks in. Details like how a worker may sew the same seam for years, or how workers cannot afford the very clothes they make thanks to wages that barely even covers basic living expenses, are highlighted by cameras to demonstrate the inhumane insanity of an industry that squeezes their workers to lower prices for consumers, and to increase profit margins for the big companies.
The struggles of the workers' daily life are emphasized in one episode where the youngsters are asked to feed themselves, the camera crew and their hosts with their day's wages of approximately $9. They struggle to scrape something together, and the indignity becomes visceral for Hambro, who says:
To experience how short $9 reach is something you can’t see on TV. What it actually costs to live here, you just don’t get to know. They don’t have money for food; the big fashion chains starve their workers. And nobody holds them responsible.
It was extremely difficult to go film the inside of any factory. The only factory that let us in, was one of the best in Cambodia, but even that was not that great. It was very hot in there, there was no toilet paper in the toilets and the chairs on which the seamstresses had to sit on were extremely uncomfortable. Some workers have told us that soldiers stood behind them during their shifts and they would have been beaten for sewing, so much so that some of them were unconscious.
It may bother some that the show seems a bit voyeuristic in choosing to focus on these three self-absorbed teenagers as a way of drawing attention on a serious injustice. But the show's demographic is not the liberal-leaning, tree-hugging crowd, but the fashion-conscious individual that shops with blissful ignorance at the big chains. The series does make a point of identifying the "poverty pay" that workers -- many of whom work six or seven 12-hour days per week -- as a major problem, leading to many fainting at work or even starving to death, while being "gainfully" employed.
While companies like Sweden's H&M may claim that it has made big steps to change things, in response to this series, the reality is that the people making these clothes are still not making a living wage. Knowledge is power, and courage to act on what we know is the deciding factor for change. See all the episodes of Sweatshop: Dead Cheap Fashion.