Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Who made your clothes?

Injuries, paltry pay, communication clampdowns--stories of garment workers from around the world, who serve the luxury and fast fashion industries

By Sanam Yar
Published: Dec 20, 2019

Who made your clothes?Phool Bano, 38, who is a tailor at Friends Factory, in Noida, India, Nov. 23, 2019. “It feels nice working here,” Bano said. “It’s clean. There are some plants and trees also, you know, the kind that are meant for decoration.” (Saumya Khandelwal/The New York Times)

Garment workers around the world make everything from luxury handbags to fast fashion leggings. Here are some of their stories.

Rumsinah, 44

Role: Zipper operator at PT. Fajarindo Faliman Zipper, which focuses largely on in-house brands

Where: Tangerang, Indonesia

“Most of my co-workers and I are all old-timers,” said Rumsinah, who has been working at the same factory for 26 years. “It’s a good factory, so no one really quits. There’s seldom any job openings — only if someone retires.”

She is paid about 3.4 million rupiah, or $241, a month, which she said is tight as a single parent. Her son recently finished high school. “He can’t work at my factory because there’s no openings,” she said. “He wants to be a teacher, but we don’t have enough money to send him to go to university.”

Though her job is tiring, “all jobs are tiring,” she said. “At least weekends are off, and the hours are not too bad.”

Waheed, 38

Role: Sewing bedsheets and curtains at a textile mill

Where: Pakistan

Waheed, who is being identified only by his first name, has been in the textile industry for 20 years and works seven days a week to support his wife and two young sons. They share a house with his parents, his sisters and his brothers.

“Most factories place a lot of restrictions on garment workers. Once they come in for their shift around 8 in the morning, there’s no knowing when supervisors will let them out. It may be 8 p.m. or 10 p.m. by the time they are allowed to leave for the day.

“Workers at my factory don’t have it as bad. That’s why I’ve been here for the past 10 years. It’s a nice place to work. But some of the resources that workers really need aren’t provided, such as first-aid kits or pension cards.

“It’s pretty common to get your fingers injured — sometimes needles break and get stuck in your bone if your hand gets in the way of the machine. Then you have to go to the hospital and get X-rays yourself.

“It’s difficult to manage on the salary I earn. My expenses amount to about 2,000 rupees a day, including the cost of my children’s clothes, their education, my family’s groceries and other bills. But I barely make 1,000 rupees a day.”

Seak Hong, 36

Role: Sews outdoor apparel and bags at Horizon Outdoor

Where: Khum Longvek, Kampong Chhnang, Cambodia

Six days a week, Hong wakes up at 4:35 a.m. to catch the truck to work from her village. Her workday begins at 7 and usually lasts nine hours, with a lunch break. During the peak season, which lasts two to three months, she works until 8:30 p.m.

Hong has been in the garment business for 22 years. She earns the equivalent of about $230 a month and supports her father, her sister, her brother (who is on disability) and her 12-year-old son.

She hopes he will not end up in a factory, too, but the price of a high-quality education — about $20 a month — is beyond her means. While she is at work, her sister manages the household, taking care of their oxen and rice-farming their land for extra food.

“I feel tired, but I have no choice,” Hong said. “I have to work.”

Who made your clothes?Yurani Tascon, 34, who tracks daily production numbers at Supertex, in Yumbo, Colombia, Dec. 2, 2019. “They spoil us a lot here,” said Tascon. “It’s a job with good stability.” (Nadège Mazars/The New York Times)

Yurani Tascon, 34

Role: Tracks daily production numbers at Supertex, which works with major activewear brands

Where: Yumbo, Colombia

“They spoil us a lot here,” Tascon said. “It’s a job with good stability.” Her workplace blasts music — usually salsa or something traditional — from speakers throughout the day while employees make coats, bathing suits and sportswear.

At 11 a.m., employees get “pausas activas” — active breaks with music.

Sarjimin, 39

Role: Makes shoes for a comfort footwear brand at PT. Dwi Naga Sakti Abadi

Where: Tangerang, Indonesia

Sarjimin has worked at the same factory for about 12 years. The job is relatively stable, and his workplace is spacious, bright and safe.

He earns the equivalent of $250 a month, and his wife also works at a factory. The family is able to send their children, a 13-year-old and a 9-year-old, to good schools. They recently purchased a computer for their older son, who is passionate about technology.

Sarjimin farms catfish to supplement his family’s grocery money. He started six months ago, filling a big empty drum with starter fish as an experiment. Now he has two drums with 300 fish each and sells them to friends, family members and neighbors.

One day he would like to raise catfish full time. “There’s a motivational speaker I heard once, ‘You have to dare to dream; how to get there is a question for a different time,’ ” he said. “I like remembering those words.”

Saida, 38

Role: Sewing machine operator at Pinehurst Manufacturing, which works with major activewear brands

Where: San Pedro Sula, Honduras

The factory where Saida has worked for 12 years is one of the few in the area. She earns about 8,200 lempira each month, roughly $331. “It doesn’t cover everything,” she said. “Vivimos sobregirados.” (“We live overdrawn.”)

Saida lives with her mother and her 19-year-old daughter, who goes to school. “I am the one who provides everything at home — the house, the water, the electricity,” she said. “You have to stop buying certain things to be able to cover the necessities.”

Her unit currently has one primary client, a major sportswear brand. This is a source of anxiety for her and her co-workers because they fear mass layoffs if the client leaves the company. “It’s really difficult having one client,” she said.

Bui Chi Thang, 35

Role: Stitching denim together for sustainability-focused brands at Saitex International

Where: Bien Hoa, Vietnam

Bui has been at his factory for seven years. “It matches my skill,” he said, “and the salary is enough for my family.” He earns about 90 million dong annually, roughly $3,880, which he uses to support his mother, wife and son.

During the average nine-hour workday, “I can finish 1,000 to 1,200 pieces a day, depending on the difficulty,” he said.

Santiago, 48

Role: Sews clasps and zippers onto dresses, blouses and pants at a factory

Where: Los Angeles

“I’m from Guatemala. I’ve been doing garment work for 16 years. I started because it was the only thing I knew how to do after leaving my home country,” he said. “I came here because there were not as many opportunities back home, and with six children, there are a lot of expenses.”

In the last five years, he has worked in five to eight factories. They are often windowless and dirty, with little ventilation, he said.

When he first moved to Los Angeles, Santiago worked 11-hour shifts seven days a week. Now he works about 50 hours a week, taking home up to $350. The majority of his co-workers — around 30 other people — are Spanish speakers from Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico.

“I’m just making ends meet,” he said. “I’m always trying to figure out how to save money, how to buy food, how to not eat out too much.” Still, he said it is better than what he was earning in Guatemala.

Maria Valdinete da Silva, 46

Role: Self-employed seamstress

Where: Caruaru, Brazil

The last factory da Silva worked at produced men’s streetwear. She spent eight years there, stitching side seams together in an assembly line with an hourly quota.

“Some companies, like the one I worked for, no longer have employees inside the factory, and the seamstresses work from home,” she said. “They establish small groups, tiny factories, and they are paid per item, so they basically have the same production without any costs.”

To make minimum wage, outsourced employees “have to work from day to night,” she said.

She now makes women’s clothing independently, producing fewer pieces and selling them locally. She makes “maybe half” of minimum wage, but she said it’s worth it to work at her own pace. “I love what I do,” she said. “I no longer see myself in that situation of sitting in front of a machine doing the same thing every day.”

She plans to take fashion design courses soon. “Seamstresses are the key element in the fashion chain; we are the ones who put the clothes together,” she said. “You basically have to kill yourself in front of a sewing machine in order to provide for your family.”

Antonio Ripani, 72

Role: Leather quality control at Tod’s Group

Where: Casette d’Ete, Italy

Ripani, who began working with leather at 14, has been employed by Tod’s for more than 40 years, where he assesses “practically all the hides that arrive” for quality.

“Alone it’s hard to do everything, so I have a group of ragazzi (guys) under me, and I have taught them everything I’ve been able to understand after all these years,” he said.

Ripani doesn’t earn much, he said, but he sets his own schedule, often working eight to 12 hours a day. He has assistants and has received awards for his highly specialized work.

“It’s not so much the salary, it’s that I am here because we’re all one family,” he said. “When I started, I had long hair. Now, I am bald.”

Rukhsana, 48

Role: Security at Sitara Textile Industries

Where: Faisalabad, Pakistan

Rukhsana began working in the garment industry shortly after her husband died seven years ago. She works seven days a week.

“The hardest thing about working in a textile mill is that management kind of cuts you off from the world for the duration of your shift. If anyone calls you from home — with good news or bad news — you can’t take the call, and management doesn’t tell you until the day is over.

“Two years ago, my nephew died in an accident when I was working. My brother tried calling me, but management didn’t tell me about it until my family had already held his funeral. I was so upset, I quit my job.

“Now that I’m in security, I know when someone comes to the mill and tries to contact a worker. But I’m still not allowed to tell the worker their relative has been trying to reach them.

“It’s not just difficult, it’s impossible to survive on the salary the textile mills pay. Are we supposed to choose between buying food and roti or paying for clothes and medicine? And there’s always rent to pay in addition to that.”

Employees store their phones in a locker before beginning their shift, a company spokesman said in a phone interview, and they aren’t allowed to leave the organization “without any written acknowledgment from the manager.”

(He said family members can reach employees on their cellphones or by calling the factory directly and that he was not aware of any incidents in which family was prevented or delayed from contacting an employee during an emergency.)

Vu Hoang Quan, 21

Role: Sews dress shirts for mass retailers at TAL Apparel

Where: Binh Xuyen, Vinh Phuc, Vietnam

Vu has spent the last four years working on a production line with about 30 other employees, each overseeing parts of the sewing process. He earns about 10 to 12 million dong (about $432 to $518) a month. He sends most of it back to his family.

“My favorite time is at 3 p.m., when we have an exercise session,” he said. “We stay at our work spot. We pause our work process, line up and follow the exercise instructions of team leaders.”

He recently participated in a talent show hosted by the company where he performed modern dance. “I don’t have plans to leave this job any time soon,” he said. “I’m quite satisfied with it.”

Catherine Gamet, 48

Role: Leather goods artisan at Louis Vuitton

Where: Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule, France

Gamet began working with leather when she was 16 and has been employed by Vuitton for 23 years. “To be able to build bags and all, and to be able to sew behind the machine, to do hand-sewn products, it is my passion,” she said. “That’s how I got into it.”

About 800 employees work in Saint-Pourçain at four sites. Gamet said the workshops are well organized, bright and modern. “The time flies by,” she said.

S, 33

Role: Tailor making pants and socks for fast fashion and activewear brands at Shahi Exports

Where: India

The shift begins at 9 a.m. She feels a lot of pressure from supervisors to reach quotas of 90 to 120 pieces an hour and said that many workers are afraid to take breaks or use the restroom because it will waste time.

Employees who can’t keep up are often pulled aside at the end of each hour, she said, and supervisors will yell at them and bang on tables. Many workers spend most of their 30-minute lunch breaks scrambling to finish more pieces to get back on track.

“We don’t even have the freedom to drink water,” S. said, adding that management doesn’t allow employees to bring in water bottles.

Instead, water is handed out by the factory. In the spring of 2018, the supplied water was making workers sick, and when employees gave managers a letter with a variety of basic requests, including clean water, they were beaten. Their clothes were torn, and many of their valuables, including phones and jewelry, were taken.

The employees took their complaint to the labor department. The issues were resolved three months after the incident, after the factory faced public pressure from a report by a U.S. watchdog group, social media and brands that worked with the factory.

Some conditions have improved: Employees get mineral water now. But the pay is still bad, S. said, and the main workspace doesn’t have windows, air conditioning or heaters.

“We want to ask for more salary, but people are scared after what happened last year to ask again,” she said.

(In an email, a spokesman from Shahi Exports acknowledged the 2018 incident and forwarded a statement outlining the preventive measures the company has since enacted. In a separate email, a spokesman said berating employees in any way “constitutes misconduct,” and instances brought to management’s attention would “initiate action” against the perpetrator. “While we do strive to drive efficiencies, there is no scope to berate any employee on account of nonperformance or deficient performance,” he said. The spokesman added that there “is adequate ventilation” in the workspace and that the entire factory is “in compliance with the law.”)

S., a single parent, picks up extra work in the evenings and takes out loans to support herself and her daughter. “There are thousands of people” in her city in the same situation, she said. “My story is just one of them.”

Phool Bano, 38

Role: Tailor at Friends Factory

Where: Noida, India

Bano has been a tailor for about 22 years and works at a progressive factory that makes small batches of garments for high-end independent brands. The building has little luxuries like air purifiers.

“It feels nice working here,” she said. “It’s clean. There are some plants and trees also, you know, the kind that are meant for decoration.”

Helena Lúcia Santos da Conceição da Silva, 54

Role: Seamstress at Fantasia D!kas Roupas

Where: Nova Friburgo, Brazil

“I’ve always thought of myself as a seamstress. I even made my daughter’s Sweet 16 dress. It looks like overlapping petals. It’s my greatest pride.

“I start work at 7 a.m. We make everything: pants, shorts, tops. I work eight hours a day Mondays to Fridays with a one-hour lunch break. It’s a small company: me and five other seamstresses. We don’t have a quota. Here they value quality over quantity. I don’t even know how many pieces I work on in a given day. We don’t keep track.”

Da Silva does not make enough money from her day job, so she picks up extra work from private clients to complete on evenings and weekends, sometimes working until 10 p.m.

“I prefer working for this manufacturer because I’m on the payroll. I’m entitled to vacations. It’s more secure. But my dream is to have my own atelier at home.”

©2019 New York Times News Service