Sunday, October 25, 2009


Just watched the new HBO documentary on garment district, "Schmatta: From Rags to Riches to Rags". Very pleased with it, since it combines two of the things I'm keenly interested in -- fashion and history of organized labor. The film does an excellent job covering the beginnings of the garment district and its immigrant roots, the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company that took lives of over 100 young women -- workers who were locked inside the factory -- and how that fire became a catalyst for organizing workers (especially women) of the Garment District. There's plenty of documentary footage -- from terrifying to uplifting, as the film deals with labor unions gaining strength and their role in the rise of the middle class of the New York City. Oh, the golden days of unions wielding real political clout! Children of early labor activists are so wistful when they talk about that time.

Then it gets depressing again, as we are shown gradual weakening of the unions and downright union busting by the Reagan administration, the export of jobs overseas, and the overall deregulation of market that resulted in even more losses in domestic jobs and rise in exploitative sweatshops overseas. It is shocking to see that in 1965 95% of clothing sold in the US was made in the US, and soon after 1993 ratification of NAFTA agreement by Clinton that number dropped to 50%. Now it's only 5%.

The documentary then touches on the issues with sweatshops, concluding with the fire in a textile factory near Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed dozens of workers, most of whom were girls between 12 and 14 years of age. They were locked in the factory, in an eerie echo of the 1911 tragedy.

Another thing I found interesting is their commentary on disposable, cheap clothes produced by Forever 21, H&M etc. -- the idea that if people demand cheap clothing, there's just really no way for the American garment industry to recover, simply because it is impossible to pay minimum wage while making $10 dresses. Stronger unions and stricter market regulations, with limit on exporting jobs to the overseas, seems to be the key to recovery of the local industry -- but of course that would mean that Target and Walmart prices will become the thing of the past.

This is something I've been thinking about quite a bit -- I try to get a good chunk of my clothes from indie designers (which reminds me: I'm due for another Etsy post), since they are a) local and/or b)likely don't have a sweatshop. Yet, I'm not entirely ready to jettison all bargain retailers from my wardrobe (I don't have a lot, but a few) -- primarily because I don't feel that shifting all ethical responsibility to the individuals instead of governments is fair, and the admonishments to 'vote with your wallet' results in an unpleasant situation where every political decision is expressed via buying stuff, which I think largely misses the point. Still, I hope that the US government will take steps to bring manufacturing industries home, and then I won't mind paying a few bucks more for my shoes.

In other words, this documentary is highly recommended. It's playing on HBO (and On Demand).

No comments: