The Adventures of an Undercover Underwear Buyer
In my global quest to answer the question "Where Am I Wearing?" I picked my favorite items out of my wardrobe and traced them back to where they were assembled. I went to Honduras for my favorite T-shirt, Cambodia for my all-American blue jeans, and China for my flip-flops.
In Bangladesh, I tracked down the factory that made my Jingle These Christmas boxers. Here are a few glimpses from my experience, including one case where I almost lost it.
1. It can be hard to keep it together
"So, I hear you are interested in women's panties."
Salehin magically whips out a pair of sea-foam green granny panties and splashes them down across the desk between us. They're see-through. I've just taken a swig from the skinny can of Coca-Cola that was given to me when I arrived at the office. I fight hard not to spit it all over Salehin and his granny panties.
"No... I'm interested in boxers," I pull my boxers out of my bag, "like these." I B.S. my way through a discussion about my underwear: how they were printed, what their thread count is. The sad thing is that I don't know squat about any of this and still Salehin salivates at the thought of doing business with an American buyer.
I experience a mix of emotions: nervousness-- that I'll be caught in the fib; exhiliaration-- because he's actually buying the fib; and guilt-- again, because he's actually buying the fib.
"We can make those," Salehin says. "We can make anything."
2. The factories aren't as bad as you think
Asad leads us past a high table with neat stacks of cloth. The factory is clean, exits are marked, and fans maintain a nice breeze. The conditions seem fine. They are much better than I had expected, and I'm relieved.
Today they are making T-shirts, but I'm assured, they can produce almost anything, including underwear. There are eight production lines, and each consists of 40 people-- none of whom seem to be children or "malnourished Bangladeshis whose growth has been stunted." There is no chatter, just thimping needles and quick hands. I wonder if their hands move that fast when their boss and some foreigner aren't looking over their shoulder.
As with Asad's lazy eye, I try to pretend the workers aren't there. I'm a garment buyer. I'm not interested in workers. I'm interested in the products they produce.
3. Kids don't make your clothes (but they do work)
In 1994, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, under pressure of the boycott and the damaged image of the Made in Bangladesh label, required the factories under their power to fire all children under the age of 14. The widespread use of child labor in the Bangladeshi apparel industry ended. But it's of little consolation because heart wrenching levels of child labor continue. According to the 2002/2003 National Child Labor Survey, 93% of working children work in the informal sector in Bangladesh. While there are a small number of kids making our clothese there, there are 4.9 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 holding other jobs down.