At 14, I Worked in a Sweatshop. Here’s What I Think of Fashion Week.
This Kentucky fashion designer from Honduras wants us to be more sustainable
All over the world, designers are trying to figure out how to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement and the racism embedded in the fashion industry. Some of the trials have failed. In Italy, for example, fashion event organizers were rightly criticized for failing to include designers of color in their programming; in the Philippines, on the other hand, a BLM-themed “quarantine collection” featuring the words “I can’t breathe” emblazoned on an oversized scarf was seen by many as insensitive and opportunistic.
Now, in the wake of New York Fashion Week, it’s America’s turn to consider the role of race in fashion and how it intersects with exploitative labor. While American fashion brands have distanced themselves from sweatshops in recent years, the practice persists. H&M, despite a newfound commitment to transparent sourcing, has been accused of reneging on a pledge to ensure that its manufacturers pay a living wage. Lululemon’s leggings are reportedly stitched by workers who say they’re beaten by their supervisors. And last October, it emerged that Amazon was still selling clothes from Bangladeshi factories blacklisted as unsafe by other major retailers. In developing-world sweatshops, workers’ wages still account for as little as 0.5% of the retail cost of a garment — just 25 cents of the price of your $5 T-shirt.
I know because I lived it.
I’m Garifuna, descended from Indigenous Caribbean people and runaway slaves, and I grew up in a tiny village in the Mosquito Coast region of Honduras. Starting at 14, I’d ride the bus for 45 minutes from my village to a nearby factory. Like hundreds of other kids from the area, I earned $30 a week in exchange for working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, cutting fabric and sewing clothes that nobody from my village would ever wear.
Over time many of us — some as young as 13 years old — developed respiratory problems from the dust or from the foul-smelling chemicals we used to dye fabrics and acid-dip denim jeans.
The factory complex looked like a prison: tall stone walls and security guards checking IDs. Inside, 15 or 20 different companies produced clothes for American retailers. Each day, we’d be assigned a task — like sewing a T-shirt’s left sleeve — which we’d repeat over and over until the production run ended. We’d work in a dozen or so lines of 10 or 15 women, producing up to 7,000 items a day, with no bathroom breaks or lunch breaks. If we held up our production line, we’d be fired.
When I left the sweltering factory after a hard day’s work, I’d run my fingers over my arms and face, tracing lines where the red, yellow, and blue fabric dust had settled on my skin like primary-colored snow. It was soft as the lint from a clothes dryer, and I’d find it for hours or even days afterward in my hair, ears, and nostrils. The smell — hot fabric, chemicals, and sweat — stayed with me, too. Over time many of us — some as young as 13 years old — developed respiratory problems from the dust or from the foul-smelling chemicals we used to dye fabrics and acid-dip denim jeans.
As a child, I dreamed of being a fashion designer and made fantastic costumes out of leaves and other found materials for the single doll my grandfather had been able to afford. At the factory, my dreams changed. All day long I’d stare at a single color of fabric, sewing the same monotonous patterns. When my head finally hit the pillow, my dreams were monochromatic, as though that swatch of fabric was the only thing left in my head.
The vibrations of the sewing machines and the repetitive movements I made day in and day out seeped into my dreams too; I couldn’t stop sewing even when I was asleep. When my mother woke us up at 5 a.m. to get ready for the day’s work, I was already aching and exhausted from my dreams. It was brutal work for anyone, never mind a child. But I was fortunate: I worked only half the year and spent the rest of the time at school. My mom was illiterate and barely made a living selling tortillas and taking in laundry, but she was determined for us to get an education. All the money we earned in the sweatshop went to school fees and supplies.
Because of her determination and sacrifice, I was able to work for the Honduran forestry service after graduating high school. Not long after, I fell in love with an American academic doing fieldwork in my village. We married and moved to Kentucky, where I made dresses for friends, launched a fashion collective, and founded a fashion line of my own. My work has been shown on runways all over America and appeared on magazine covers. I even host a radio show promoting local artists and designers. I’ve been incredibly fortunate — more than most. According to the International Labor Organization, about 152 million young people engage in child labor every single day. About 18 million work in industrial settings as I did. Very few escape.
Well-meaning economists call sweatshop work an “escalator out of poverty” for families like mine. Surely, it’s better, they argue, to work for $30 a week than to have no work at all. Perhaps there’s some truth to that: Because I worked in the sweatshop, my mom was eventually able to put all my siblings through school. My older sister graduated first, becoming an accountant; my younger sister learned computer programming; my brother went to technical school and became a mechanic. Because of my mom’s grit and our own hard work, we had better lives than would otherwise have been possible.
For many families, though, sweatshop work is a trap. We were always one financial disaster away from using our earnings to support ourselves instead of our education. Many of the women and children who worked alongside us in the sweatshop made just enough to survive but not enough to break free.
The reality is that fashion is a $2.5 trillion global industry, and there’s simply no excuse for American brands to be directly or indirectly paying apparel workers so poorly. In New York City, fashion generates $9 billion in total wages, and Fashion Week alone generates $773 million in total economic impact each year. Even in these difficult times, we can afford to give something back and embrace more transparent and responsible labor practices to help workers in America and all over the world.
I didn’t see that so clearly when I lived in Honduras. My family had always been poor. Children did what they were told. We had no concept of exploitation, just as we had no concept of saving money or accumulating possessions — we lived hand to mouth.
I can’t look at a $5 T-shirt on sale in H&M or Walmart without thinking about the hands that made it and the time it took to stitch the fabric.
Moving to America helped me see the injustice I’d been living through. I realized that in this country, even those who are struggling have far more than most Hondurans. I came to see American affluence as a kind of illusion: people flocking to buy cheap, low-quality products that simply couldn’t be manufactured without relying on low-paid, exploitative labor. In Honduras, as in America, people take to the streets to demand change when they suffer injustices — but it was only by coming to America that I could begin to perceive my own place in a global supply chain founded upon systemic injustice.
To make things right, change needs to start with consumers here in America. At my fashion shows, I share my culture and my heritage but also work to promote ethical fashion, sustainable materials, and locally made products. I also give talks and teach classes for college students and high schoolers about the human consequences of the global supply chain that makes fast fashion possible.
I tell them that as a former sweatshop worker, I can’t look at a $5 T-shirt on sale in H&M or Walmart without thinking about the hands that made it and the time it took to stitch the fabric. I tell them: Imagine doing that work yourself — cutting and sewing the materials, over and over — and you’ll see that there’s simply no way to manufacture a shirt for $5 without exploiting someone.
Fashion is a globalized business, and many of the designs we saw on the runway this Fashion Week will soon be copied by fast-fashion brands using domestic or foreign sweatshop workers. It’s up to us — as both designers and consumers — to demand that workers are paid a fair wage for their labor. Already, young, ethically conscious American consumers are creating momentum for better labor practices. But nothing will change until every person takes a pause before they click “buy” online and remembers that a human being is behind that purchase.
I still suffer from chronic back pain from the many months I spent hunched over a sewing machine. I often have trouble sleeping. But I’m so grateful to be here and able to talk about these issues to people who haven’t lived through it. Immigrants are a vital part of the U.S. fashion industry: We make up over 76% of the workforce in California’s apparel factories, according to New American Economy, and 85% of fashion industry professionals say immigrant workers are essential to their ongoing success. But immigration stories like mine aren’t just about mobility or economic empowerment. They’re about the kind of values that we want to be associated with and the way that a just society can be a source of inspiration for people all over the world who long to change their lives for the better.
I hope that as we look back on Fashion Week, we’ll all take a moment to reflect on our own privilege. It’s great to celebrate the amazing creativity and talent of top designers — but now more than ever, we also need to recognize the injustices inherent in the global fashion business and commit to finding ways to make our industry fairer, safer, and more sustainable for everyone.