Wednesday, June 30, 2010

World tour- 2010

Be careful what you wish for.  I've learned this over the years.  I've learned that that guy Murphy and his laws exist for a reason.  I love to travel.  I always have.  It doesn't matter that my first time on a plane at the age of 6, a piece of sattelite broke the cockpit window, the plane decompressed and had to make an emergency landing in London, England (the flight was from Llubjana to Montreal).  Ever since, I've had the travel bug.

I love that my job involves international travel.  Usually, twice a year, I get to go on a plane and work in some pretty random places: be it India, Israel or industrial towns in China.  Even though I've travelled a ton, I still get excited going to the airport.  However, after 2009, I was determined to "pace" my travel a little.  2009 was a busy travel year even for me!  Looking back, I spent most of 2009 either packing or unpacking, jet lagged or getting over jet lag. 

It started with a trip to Cozumel, Mexico in January, after that a business trip to China in April, another business trip to China and Thailand (with a week for pleasure added on) in June, China again in September, and finally Chile and Argentina in November.  Add to that the stress of through a divorce and being a bridesmaid in my brother's wedding to the mix and you have what was an insane year.

So this year, I was determined that 2010 be a lot "calmer".  And it was looking pretty good... until now!  So far this year, I've only had one trip to Asia in April.  Then I added this exciting (albeit unexpected) trip to the Yukon.  And another business trip which I expected.  As it turns out, I get back from the Yukon and 5 days later hope on a plane and head to Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.  I was already wondering how I was going to survive the shock of going from zero civilization to Hong Kong when my middle brother announced he's getting married.  This September.  In Scotland.  I understand their urgency (visas etc...) and since our family is tiny, I really want to (and will be) there for him.  As it turns out, I'll get back from Hong Kong and 48 hours later, hop back onto a plane to head to Scotland.  When did life become this hectic?  and exciting? and most of all, how did I become such a world traveller?!?!?! Despite a full passport, it continues to baffle (and amaze) me....

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The conundrum of where your clothes are made

I’ll always be thankful for a number of things. No matter how bad some days get or how sorry I’ll feel for myself at times, I know that in the global scope of things, I really have nothing to complain about. I’m thankful that I’ll always have food to eat, running water and that as much as I’d love to earn more money, I’m galaxies away from making $0.22 per hour. Most of my perspective has come thru travelling and mostly from work travel. I work in the clothing business and visit factories overseas a couple of times a year.

If you’ve ever stepped foot in a clothing factory, it’s not a pleasant place to be. Between the constant noise and humming of the machinery, to the dust from all the textiles to the heat of the steaming equipment, it’s a good setting to develop a headache pretty quickly. Add to that a steamy 3rd world location off the beaten path and it becomes downright torturous. My visits typically consist of visiting with factory managers and merchandisers and involve very little time on the factory floor. But the times I do spend on the factory floor, I’ve felt close to fainting and am grateful for the cold glass of water and air conditioning at the end of my day. Unfortunately, the workers don’t get the same luxury.

For the most part, clothing manufacturing is done by women (exception being India where there are still a majority of male sewers) Sewing a garment is not something that typically requires a lot of skill. You may not know how to sew a pair of jeans or a t-shirt, but when it comes down to mass production work, you don’t really need to. Each part of the garment is broken down into single operations. A pair of jeans may easily pass thru the hands of 30 different workers. One to sew the back pocket, one to sew the zipper, one to sew the belt loops etc… Imagine the monotony of sitting at a sewing machine, day in, day out, sewing only a zipper or belt loops. Imagine doing that in the heat of the summer when humidity is 95% and the outside temperature is in the upper 30’s Celcius. And now, imagine your paycheque… Depending on the country, you can expect to make the equivalent of $0.50-$1.00 per hour. Some countries and areas are more and some, sadly less. For instance, in Bangladesh, as of 2008, you could expect to make $0.22 an hour as an apparel factory worker.

Sadly, most of us have become addicted to cheap, affordable, disposable goods. I get asked a lot why there aren’t more factories in Canada and why more things aren’t made in Canada. To say it’s a complex matter, is an understatement. Say for instance, those new cotton pants you bought. You look at the label, and it’s made in China. In order for that pant to be made in Canada, the fabric would have to be purchased. Sadly, Canada doesn’t have any cotton fields. Chances are, you’d have to buy that fabric from somewhere else. Likely from China, or if you were lucky and found that there are still places that make fabric in the US, from the US. In order to bring that fabric to Canada, the government is going to charge you duties. It doesn’t matter that there aren’t any textile mills left in Canada, but the government is still going to charge you 20% duty on that fabric. Now it comes time to cut and sew that fabric into pants. Assuming you’ve found a factory that is still around and has the machinery you need and still has staff. In BC, the minimum wage is $8 per hour. Would you sit at a machine all day to sew for $8 per hour? Yeah, neither would I. So, in order to actually get workers, Canadian manufacturers typically pay in the $12 per hour range (give or take and this is a very broad generalization) If you consider that labour is the typically the most expensive component of a garment, there is a 10 times premium to making that garment in Canada. If that pant cost $3 to make in China, it would mean it would cost about $30 to make in Canada. If you factor in retail markup, licensing etc…. that EASILY tacks on $60 to the retail price of a garment. If you’ve just paid $50 for those made in China pants, would you be willing to pay $110 for those same pants in Canada?

Essentially, the 3rd world has become a pool of cheap labour, and how can we support that, right? Well, if you think of it this way… the worker that’s sitting down at that machine in China, making $1 per hour sewing your pants? Well, if she weren’t doing that, she’d likely still be in her home village, working on her parents farm struggling for the entire family to get by. Their home would likely not have indoor heating or plumbing nor could they afford for any of the girls to go to school (priority still goes to men) This girl, and millions like her, leave their home villages around the age of 18 to go work “in the city” they travel thousands of miles away from home to get work in a factory so they can support their families back home (and build up a savings for themselves) Factories have set up dormitories and provide food for the workers. This isn’t just for the apparel business, but pretty much for anything made in China. The workers will work “in the city” typically until their mid 20’s. After which they return home, marry and have kids. Until that time, they are able to send home somewhere around half of their income to their families. To be fair, not a great life. However, if us “westerners” weren’t addicted to our cheap consumer goods, there would be no demand for the goods nor their labour.

Ironically, there since there has been such a demand for consumer goods in the last 10 years, it’s putting upward pressure on the cost of labour. Recently, there have been strikes and protests about the low wages in Southern China. So much so that companies who make cars and electronics have boosted pay by almost double. This will undoubtedly affect other areas of manufacturing and the cost of your jeans will go up. Is it a bad thing? In my opinion, no. Pay the workers a living wage allowing them to support themselves and their family, seems fair. However, because people have gotten used to paying $50 for their pants, are they now going to want to pay $60 or $70? I’m sure some retailers will think not and then manufacture their goods in a country where the cost of production is cheaper, like the $0.22 per hour Bangladeshi factories.

After all these years in the garment industry, I’m still torn on what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” It’s not as cut and dry as I once thought. Anyone would agree that sweatshops are bad, and in my experience, I’ve only come across one place that would be considered a sweatshop (thankfully a place that no one I’ve ever worked with has used!) Most large brands (Nike, Levi’s, Banana Republic etc…) have independent auditors to make sure that all of their vendors abide by certain codes of conduct. This is a checkpoint to make sure that workers basic human and safety rights are looked after (ie no child labour, no locked doors, no “excessive” overtimes etc…) and once that’s met, who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong? To me, obviously $1.00 per hour seems like slave labour, but if a worker earns that and is more than what they’d normally earn and can send money home, is that wrong?

One thing that is wrong to me is when brands, companies etc… go from country to country in search of cheaper and cheaper labor. So if you start noticing that more and more of your clothing is Made in Cambodia, or Vietnam or Bangladesh, you’ll know that the workers in China were successful in getting a raise…