Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Review: Where am I Wearing? by Kelsey Timmerman

Due to my interest in the clothing industry, I did some online research and came across Kelsey Timmerman's book, Where am I Wearing? A Global Tour of the Countries, Factories, and People that Make Our Clothes. The premise of the book is a quest to track down the origin of each item of Timmerman's typical ensemble: his shirt, underwear, pants, flip-flops, and shorts. His goal is to talk to someone who works in the factory who made the item, someone who could possibly have made it themselves. He wants to get a sense of what that person's life is like. His first trip, to Honduras where his shirt was made, he counts a failure. A fleeting encounter with a garment industry worker named Amilcar makes him realize that he was not fully prepared to truly uncover the gritty details. Subsequent trips to Bangladesh, Cambodia, and China are more successful. In each of these countries, he meets individuals who made his clothes. Or if not his clothes, they make our clothes (in some cases it was impossible to track down the exact factory, or the company moved, closed, or otherwise was inaccessible). The encounters that he has with these individuals are interesting: in some cases, he plays the benefactor - he gives Amilcar the shirt he is wearing, in Bangladesh he takes 20 some street children to an amusement park, in Cambodia, he takes a group of young female garment workers bowling. More often than not, however, they seem to be his benefactors - they cook for him, let him stay in their homes, teach him about their culture and country. In each case, they provide him access to information that he could not have otherwise obtained.

The conditions he encounters range. In Bangladesh, child labor exists, but, often it is a better alternative than what the children may be doing otherwise. In fact, many children indicated that they wanted to work, needed to work in the factories. They will be working somewhere - a labor-free childhood is not possible in their economy, and the factory jobs are often safer and more lucrative than selling flowers on the street or begging. In Cambodia, he realized that by most world standards the conditions for workers there were relatively good. Many workers had contracts, but they were often exploited by labor sharks in order to get them. Many of the workers were young women from villages, who left their family farms in order to work in the city. A significant portion of their earnings were sent back to the families, although the women themselves were only able to return for visits twice a year. Regardless, contributing to their family income is a priority. In China, he met a couple who had left their 13 year old son with his grandfather in their village so they could work in a shoe factory in the city. Although at first the couple recites to Timmerman the regulation hours they work in a day - between 9 and 12. Later, after they realize he is not a customer for the factory, they reveal the truth. They work between 80 and 100 hours a week, seven days a week. They are often forced to work off the clock, providing free labor. Complaints would lose them their jobs.

Timmerman's account of his travels is intriguing. He is not an activist. In fact, he makes fun of the die-hard American activists who perform die-ins (where they pretend to be corpses in order to gain the attention of lookers-on) and who chant slogans like "Diet, cherry , or vanilla, Coca-Cola is a killa." Timmerman doesn't see these tactics creating much change. On the other hand, Timmerman himself doesn't offer any earth-shattering new solutions himself. He makes the point that boy-cotting a company for human rights violations of its factory workers doesn't help the workers. Often they lose their jobs and are left worse off than they were before. He urges awareness: know where your clothes are made; and he recommends several companies that are fair-trade.

Timmerman's work is useful for its balanced view on the garment industry. He makes it clear that he had no particular agenda for his quest. His reporting puts a human face the industry that is not over-sentimentalized, but feels authentic and personal. He is able to put these workers in a context of their economies and national histories. Ultimately, Timmerman advocates, not guilt - which seems inevitable when we compare our wealth and resources with those who make our clothes - but awareness and compassion.

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