For over 4 years, I worked in the labor industry, editing auditor’s reports of factories (mainly) overseas. Having no previous background in the industry, I first found it boring and initially just used the time to work on my editing skills, as I worked with reports written by people from all different nationalities and linguistic backgrounds. I enjoyed how reports came to us as somewhat of a puzzle that needed to be put back together in order for the public to be able to read them easily.
But then, I became fascinated by the contents of the reports themselves, not just their grammatical components. I learned that in some countries people had more days off for the death of their father than for the death of their mother (or even their own wedding). That in many countries both workers and managers firmly believe that workers perform their duties just as well on the 4th hour of their shifts as they do in the 18th hour. And that often, if a factory changed its working hours to within a 48-hour work week (in order to satisfy our organizational benchmarks), many workers would quit and go find jobs in a factory offering a 60-hour work week because they couldn’t earn enough money at the first factory.
Some of the findings were surprising, as in some countries women could take sick days off for having their periods. And some canteens in one country catered to the local food preferences of their migrant workers from others. And that even though it’s often used in journalism as the biggest problem in factories, child labor was not actually found very often in the apparel and footwear factories that we worked with.
There were sometimes also ghastly findings, like rodent-infested factory canteens and live wires in dormitories and lung problems due to the inhalation of dust or tiny microscopic bits of fabric. My least favorite thing of all to find in these reports, however, was that sometimes factory doors were kept locked during the day with chains and that fire escapes were either non-existent or too rickety to hold many people.
Two years ago today, the Rana Plaza building collapsed. I remember sitting at my desk researching articles trying to find out if any of the companies we worked with were involved, looking at the photos online and seeing people being rescued by sliding down slips of fabric (could you imagine that being the standard and means of safety in your place of employment?), the whole while seeing the death toll rising.
I’m no longer at that job, but I am thankful for the world it exposed me to. A world that most people don’t get to look into or even think about on a daily basis. A look into factories where people are making what we wear on our bodies and our feet. A look at how factories both improved and worsened people’s lives, depending on how they were run. A daily reminder that somewhere, someone had a literal hand in making my clothes.
So, today, on this 2nd anniversary, articles are being written, and thanks to the efforts of organizations like Fashion Revolution, people are taking photos of themselves with the labels of the clothes they are wearing. You can check out the #fashrev hashtag on Instagram here. People are talking about what happened, and that’s why I started craftivism in the first place, to open up dialogue between people about subjects that may be seen as difficult.
You can take photos of your labels, wear your clothes inside out, take note of our problems with consumption today. But hopefully that doesn’t mean you’ll forget about it tomorrow, because somewhere someone is making your clothes, your shoes, your carpets. And by remembering that when we make purchases, hopefully we can buy more clothes from producers who are auditing their factories (there are several different ways to do that, some better than others, but that’s not really an issue for this post); treating their workers better (you can check out initiatives like Labour Behind the Label to see how different companies are doing); and learn to make our own clothes (on that front, I always hear raves about Cal Patch’s video classes!)
By making someone else’s day-to-day work part of our day-to-day awareness, that doesn’t mean we have to totally change all our habits right now. It means we can start small by mending old clothes that have holes in them instead of throwing them away (check out Tom of Holland’s rad Visible Mending Programme!); checking the labels in our clothes and become aware of where they come from (hint: they don’t all come from China); and we can think about whether or not we really need that new top. Small changes and decisions lead to even bigger ones over time, the trick is to bring them into your own personal awareness.
But to me, this day will always be about this image below that was captured 2 years ago. His face is reminiscent of hundreds of photos I have seen over the years of anonymous workers in factories. Yet their embrace despite disaster is something that we all can recognize as the basis of humanity, as we all search love and comfort and each other in times of need. This photo reminds me of why it’s important to remember where my clothes came from, because after all, the people that made them, they are just like me.