Tag Archives: trade

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: Workers’ Rights 99 Years Later

Yesterday marked 99 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned on New York’s Lower East Side, killing 146 of its 500 workers, who were locked inside the building.The fire, and the campaign and reform for garment workers’ rights to follow, is well chronicled in Cornell’s Triangle Factory Fire online exhibit, where you can find photos, letters and original articles from 1911. It’s well worth a look, especially since nearly 100 years later, garment workers around the world still have to fight for a living wage, the right to organize and even their basic safety.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Photographer Unknown

Earlier this year, 21 workers were trapped and killed in Bangladesh when a fire swept through the Garib & Garib Sweater Factory, which made clothing for companies like H&M. The factory had been audited just months before, but clearly key safety issues had been missed. (Ken Silverstein touched upon the issue of ineffective audits in his Harper’s piece “Shopping for Sweat,” which I linked to in January.)

This past Tuesday, in Stockholm, I met Malin Eriksson, who coordinates the Clean Clothes Campaign, a worldwide network committed to improving working conditions in clothing factories. She talked about how a well organized workforce could essentially serve as an in-house audit team on a daily basis. But that barely seems realistic when most of these workers have no job security and can’t afford to jeopardize their income by protesting unfair conditions. (Another CCC representative estimated that in countries where the organization is active, less than 5% of the garment workforce is unionized.)

When I asked Malin about Nicholas Kristof’s argument that abominable work conditions in a factory are better than no work at all, she explained that’s why the CCC’s urgent actions, which directly implement workers’ wishes usually involve letter-writing campaigns, rather than boycotts of the garments they produce.

In the case of the Garib & Garib fire, CCC has organized campaigns to demand medical care for injured workers, compensation for deceased workers’ families, a criminal investigation of the fire (CCC claims it wasn’t only preventable, it was predictable) and the direct support of these demands from brands doing business with the factory.

H&M Corporate Social Responsibility Manager Ingrid Schullström announced today that the company would donate 1 million Swedish Krona (about US $135,000) for preventative safety measures at factories in Bangladesh, and that they are waiting for reports commissioned from Save the Children and Incidin Bangladesh before deciding on further reparations for bereaved families.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under made in new york, news, Uncategorized

Government Undies

You know what’s weird? This story, from the front page of today’s New York Times about middlemen, or more specifically, middlewomen, who sell giant bras and behemoth undies to the government from their homes, is pretty weird.

Clothing a Hard-to-Fit Inmate is All in a Day’s Work for Governments’ Go-To Gals

Photo by Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

I especially liked this bit, when Florence Nicholas, a 69 year-old slipper-slanger, told the Georgia state government they need to catch up with today’s technology.

Take the bid specs that Georgia recently issued for broadcloth, explicitly asking for “domestic goods,” Ms. Corey noted.

“Everybody knows that there aren’t any domestic textiles in the U.S., or very few,” she said. “Very often, I have called the buyer to bring to their attention that the specifications don’t make sense,” she said. “And the answer I get is ‘Oh, we’ve been using the same specifications for the last 20 years,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, except technology has moved on.’ ”

Look, you can even see documents like this one, noting items like $162,627.00 worth of orange sneakers for Riker’s Island. Corey said she has generated as much as $2 million per year in sales.

If this journalism thing doesn’t work out, I suppose I always have my production experience.

Leave a comment

Filed under news, Uncategorized, you know what's weird?

What Would Levi’s Do?

Jeff Jarvis is constantly asking us, What Would Google Do?  Now, as Google threatens to leave China, this piece in today’s WSJ finds a precedent in Levi’s tenuous trade relationship with the country, comparing this moment to the denim company’s exit in 1993 . (They have since returned.) From the article:

“If you look at the Levi Strauss and Google situations,it’s important to see there are similarities but there are differences,” said Sharon Hom, a spokeswoman for the group Human Rights In China. “The impact is much bigger today because it is making it into a public debate in China. Not everyone needs a pair of jeans but everyone needs information.”

So is Google the new Levi’s? Is information the new denim?

Where does that leave information about denim?

1 Comment

Filed under denim diaries, news, Uncategorized

The American Garmento: An Endangered Species in its Natural Habitat

If you are a New Yorker, or a regular reader of this website, you may already be aware that New York City’s Garment District is at risk of re-zoning. Maybe you:

You might be wondering what this all really means. What’s at stake? Who works in this Garment Center anyway? (To the layman, the neighborhood may just be home to peep shows, Port Authority, and The New York Times.) Today, I’ll try to give you a run-down of the issue at hand, and share some video-windows I made into a few businesses in the neighborhood.

Since 1987, Manhattan’s Garment District, which falls between 34th and 40th Streets east of 9th Avenue and west of Broadway, has been protected by a zoning regulation that requires landlords to devote a minimum area of their space to manufacturers. Now, after New York City lost 12,500 manufacturing jobs over the last year, local politicians feel the space can be put to better use, and that regulation is under re-negotiation.

Andrew Ward, Executive Director of the Garment Industry Development Corporation, said his organization, which represents the fashion faction, is in discussions with developers, landlords, and union workers about how best to proceed. He wasn’t at liberty to discuss the next steps just yet, but he did note that although only 5% of the clothing Americans buy is made in the USA, 1.3 million square feet of the Garment Center–about 1/6 of the commercially zoned area, are still occupied by manufacturers, wholesalers, suppliers, and designers–that rare breed of New Yorker we affectionately know as garmentos.

As I said in this previous post, when I ran around the Garment District years ago as a design and production assistant, I took the industry’s grittiness, diversity, and camaraderie for granted, as part of New York City. Watching Schmatta helped me put my experience in historic context, but here’s the thing–it’s not just history.

Although according to Wikipedia’s definition, the American garmento is an endangered species, (threatened by changing environmental parameters) they’re still very much alive here in Midtown Manhattan. Here, have a peek into the work-spaces of a belt manufacturer, a bathing suit designer, and a button wholesaler, and let them tell you what the Garment District has meant to them throughout their careers.

Terry Schwartz, 58 years old, Sherry Accessories, 23 years in business. If my landlord wants me out, I’m out of business because I can’t afford to move anymore.

Malia Mills, 43 years old, Malia Mills Swimwear, 18 years in business. The closer your team is, the more you can supervise it. The garment center is absolutely vital to what we do.

Teddy Haft, 54 years old, Buttonology, 5 years in business, a “whole adult life” in buttons. The companies are still here and they do their sourcing here. And then everything gets produced overseas. It’s become very, very difficult.

Andrew Ward couldn’t say what will happen next. The city has scrapped one plan to consolidate the Garment Center’s protected area into a single building, and the negotiations continue.

“It would be a shame if we lost what’s here,” he said. “What’s left.”

2 Comments

Filed under made in new york, news, Uncategorized

Vacation Reading

You might have noticed that I took a break from blogging after my stint in California over the holidays. I needed to unwind a bit, so I spent about a week on “staycation” here in New York, engaged in two of my favorite winter sports: reading and knitting. Today I’ll tell you about the reading.

I started a few books I picked up on the third floor of the Mid-Manhattan Public Library (pictured above), but I found this Harper’s article, “Shopping for Sweat” by Ken Silverstein, particularly interesting. It’s only available to subscribers on the site, but the January 2010 issue, where it appears, is still on the stands.

In the story, Silverstein illustrates that despite Cambodia’s growing garment industry and reputation as a “sweat-free” clothing producer (thanks in part to a 1999 bilateral trade agreement that favored Cambodian garments for import into the U.S. provided factories met international standards), the country’s factory workers are still sweating for about 33 cents per hour.

The writer attacked Nicholas Kristof’s assertion that sweatshops provide an escape from poverty, or at least an alternative to scaling a garbage dump, comparing Kristof to those who defended child labor in America in the early 1900s. Interesting, and great to see two serious thinkers engaged in this conversation. (And fun, when Silverstein describes Kristof’s “trademark tone of a den mother addressing a troop of Brownies,” and footnotes that the columnist regularly earns approximately $30,000 per hour to publicly address global poverty.)

The point most seem to agree on is that it doesn’t really matter what governments or NGOs do to improve factory conditions–as long as clothing companies demand garments at a certain price, factories will find a way to deliver, especially in this economy. And that’s likely to get worse as the American demand for cheap goods rises in the recession. Silverstein cited the same New York Times story about Chinese production that I did a few months back, where  the head of trade at a southern China-based jeans factory said that American buyers “offer $2.85 per pair of jeans for a package of a dozen, when the reasonable price is $7.”

So how can consumers who don’t like the idea of cheap clothing at some greater human cost start to tell brands (Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, and H&M all appear in the piece) they might pay more for a tee-shirt made by a fairly-paid worker? Boycott? Write letters? Support pricier products? I’m not sure. I’m still working on this, as I wonder what to wear.

I also read Vogue.

1 Comment

Filed under news, Uncategorized

Rag Trade Rally: Schmatta and Swimsuits

Wednesday, at the rally to Save the Garment Center, Joey Raico, a former fabric cutter who took a buyout (“my job was shipped to China”), stood at the podium under the 39th Street button, and called the manufacturing zone on midtown Manhattan’s west side “a magical place.”

DSC09099

There were days when I too thought it was magical, though for a different reason, when I was running between factories and fabric shops in the area as an assistant for Cynthia Rose. I remember thinking the Garment District was somehow frozen in time.

This was the New York I had read about, the dingy, dirty, sort of disgusting place, where people still brazenly spit on the street and catcalled, hurrying past peep shows and Port Authority. One slushy day, as I waited to cross the street with a roll of fabric, a passing truck actually splattered me. I once thought these things only happened in movies.

DSC09086

But, with a little bit of perspective on the place, where I’m based now not as a production assistant, but an editorial one, I see it’s pretty special that in a single day at Cynthia Rose, I would work with people–actually talk with them face-to-face, from China, Greece, Ecuador, India, the Dominican Republic, all over the U.S., and more, all with the common goal of making something. Not money, an idea, or a multi-media web networking platform, but a real, tangible thing: a garment. Maybe that’s why the place felt frozen in time. American manufacturing, imagine that.

“We do need to examine whether we need to make things,” said Marc Levin, “as a society.”

Levin directed the recently released HBO documentary about the NYC Garment Center, Schmatta. Standing on the sidewalk after the rally, the director said he was initially dubious of fashion as a subject (it was HBO’s idea), but now he sees NYC’s garment industry as representative of the American economy as a whole.

It’s a powerful and seductive myth, said the director, that we can move manufacturing jobs overseas, replace them with better jobs for Americans, and continue to run up credit card debt.

“The economy has no clothes,” he said.

image from giantmag.com

The director said he didn’t know if Mayor Bloomberg has seen the film, though he knew HBO’s Sheila Nevins had given him a copy.

Levin said Michelle Obama would be the best one to get his documentary in front of. The first lady has been such a powerful proponent of American fashion, wouldn’t she like to see it stick around?

DSC09110

No doubt, these ladies would, all of whom work for Malia Mills, a swimwear designer based on 38th Street. Below, is a beautiful example of their work–albeit a little wrinkled from my drawer: a spice-colored one piece bathing suit with cutout sides. The straps, lovely and narrow, tie in the back to make it adjustable.

sart.swimsuit

Their suits fit like a dream, which likely factors into their pricey-ness. Frequent fitting sessions, myriad styles for multiple body types, and domestic manufacturing all add up–to a beautiful, but expensive garment. But here’s a valuable secret, ladies. You can go and visit their studio on 38th Street, which also serves as a sample outlet. (And a peek behind the scenes!)

The suit pictured above cost me just $20 earlier this summer. A $20 investment in the domestic development of swimwear, made, as Malia Mills’ website states, “lovingly in the U.S.A.

4 Comments

Filed under closet case study, made in new york, news, Uncategorized