With the arrival of the summer season in the northern hemisphere it’s almost ironic that a topic of conversation on its way back to the fashion industry dialogue is the return of sweatshops. Highlighted in the 90s, pervasive throughout the last two centuries and stretching back even further, the sweatshop is seeing resurgence in an industry that prides itself on social awareness.
Perhaps the manufacturers and independent vendors saw the major pull back by the media in this dark area and continued as if nothing had occurred. The news media at large though covering it enough to shine a narrow flashlight into the dimly lit area of sweatshop did its duty in highlighting an issue for the obligatory 60 second story and moved on. Several pieces were done including a look on newsmagazine shows like 60 Minutes, 20/20 and Dateline NBC, but with ratings grabbing shows like To Catch a Predator and the never-ending hunt for those evil terrorist, a blind eye was turned to the quasi-slavery industry that creates apparel and other textiles.
Jose Gutierrez and his family work at a “maquiladora” a couple of miles south of El Paso, Texas near the U.S./Mexico border. Uncommon for a man to work within the female dominated industry, Gutierrez worked as a rancher until it he was told his services were no long necessary when the downturn in business from the mad cow scare of the late 90s forced his employer to get rid of the extra cattle hands.
Gutierrez joined his wife, sister and niece at the sweatshop in early 2000 creating denim pockets. His routine consists of working from 7:30am to approximately 7:30pm. If during the run of his shift he does not complete his allocated run of product, he must stay until his task is complete. He is not paid any overtime and is allowed a half hour break during this period. Normally Gutierrez is paid $47 a week (a princely sum for workers in his area). Gutierrez is searched before he leaves the factory to make sure he has not stolen anything. He must work 9 hour shifts on Saturdays and those shifts often come without a lunch break.
Gutierrez’s wife Yolanda leaves her 3 children with the eldest when she is at work because there is no such thing as maternity leave in the maquiladora. If a woman is found to be pregnant, they are normally fired. If a woman has a young baby at home, arrangements must be made to accommodate the 12 to 14 hour workdays in the sweatshops.
The conditions (though Gutierrez says has actually improved since all the hoopla has started) now provides large fans on hot days whereas before worker would have to deal in an environment that consisted of 15 inch diameter fans. Air conditioning is a luxury of which they dare not speak.
With the descriptions of such morbid conditions I ask Jose why he continues to work there and his answer is simply “There is not other work. The maquiladora allows me to support my family. I deal with the hardship to give my children a chance at a better life.” He knows that this better life may never come because his children may soon find themselves working in the same horrendous conditions. These border town sweatshops often recruit children as young as 12 and 13 to work full time.
While Gutierrez understands the need to reform this byzantine system, he also is afraid what may happen if extensive reforms do take place. “These people up north think they are helping us, helping my family, but as they begin to improve the working conditions, they remove workers who have been there long and who earn more money than the newer workers.” For Gutierrez what would really cause problems is after the improvements are made, the cost of producing in this region of Mexico may prove to be too costly. This in turn would lead to a complete shutdown of the sweatshop. The factory would then be moved to another country to save money.
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