Labor Day in The Sewing Room

Posted by Susan Liane, The Smuggler's Daughter on 9/1/2014 to Commentary
Labor Day, the first Monday in September, was established as a holiday by the labor movement in the United States and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. 

The Smugglerís Daughter has many customers in other countries, where Labor Day is celebrated on the first of May, as International Workers Day. Throughout the world, we workers have felt the need for a special celebration of what we have done for the world. 

Of course, in 2014, many of us donít have much affinity for the origin of Labor Day. Rather, it is a long weekend that has come to mark the end of summer, the beginning of the school year, a day off work, and perhaps a fun gathering with a nice bar-b-que. Nothing wrong with that. 

But for sewistas especially, it would be a shame to lose sight of the true meaning of this holiday, and the awful conditions of garment workers, our sewing sisters around the world. Now more than ever, we have a chance to improve the conditions of these workers and to tell American retailers that we oppose the unsafe and abusive conditions of garment workers. 

It was the terrible event of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911 that spurred the effort to improve conditions for American garment workers. Over 140 workers died because the sweatshop owners had locked doors to stairwells and exits to prevent workers from taking breaks. Many women jumped to their deaths from the 8th, 9th and 10th floors because they could not escape the fire via the doors. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire helped to encourage the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and led to legislation that required safer and more humane conditions for garment industry workers. 

Unfortunately, these laws donít apply to conditions for sewing workers in many other countries where sweatshops produce much of the American fashion products sold today. In fact, today, Labor Day, many of us are out shopping for back-to-school clothing that is sewn in unsafe and abusive conditions for workers. Ironically, many of the clothing items we are purchasing for our school kids today, on Labor Day weekend, are produced by children in foreign countries who are denied the privilege of attending school and forced to work in miserable conditions to help their families merely survive. 

Just last year in 2013, the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh killed over 1100 people, many of them garment factory workers producing cheap clothing for American consumers. It is considered the deadliest garment-factory disaster in history. Just last year. In addition to clothing factories, the building housed a bank and several other businesses. Those businesses closed when serious cracks were found in the foundation just days before the collapse. Garment workers, however, were ordered to show up for work despite the signs of structural distress in the building. These garment factories produced clothing for labels such as Benetton, Walmart, Joe Fresh, Primark (Penneys), The Childrenís Place, Mango, Bonmarche and others, brands that are commonly worn in the United States. 

What has this got to do with home sewing? Plenty. The proliferation of cheap fashion in the United States has led to less and less home sewing. Like many other owners of fabric stores, if I had a nickel for every woman who tells me that she used to sew all her own clothesÖ Americans own more clothing than ever and we acquire RTW very inexpensively because of the truly horrible working conditions and insanely low wages for foreign garment workers. 

Pope Francis has spoken out against the working conditions in the factory: A headline that really struck me on the day of the tragedy in Bangladesh was 'Living on 38 euros a month'. That is what the people who died were being paid. This is called slave labour. Today in the world this slavery is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us Ė the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity. How many brothers and sisters find themselves in this situation! Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit. That goes against God! 

In the aftermath of the building collapse, many companies in the fashion industry were called upon to only contract with factories that improved conditions and were asked to sign an accord to enforce requirements for building inspections along with fire and safety standards for garment workers. This accord is one good step in the right direction. Still, most companies in the fashion industry, including ones that many of us love, have not signed the accord. For more information on this, read the Wikipedia article. 

What can we do? A few things will help:
  • Keep sewing and teach your children to sew. 
  • Stop buying cheap clothing at retailers like Walmart. 
  • Find out if your favorite clothing brands have signed the accord. 
  • Write one of your favorite brands that has not signed and tell them that safe and humane conditions for garments workers are important to you. 

I am sewing today, working on a personal project that I will share with you in a future blog. I am listening to some of my favorite music and I stop for bathroom breaks when I need them. I have windows open and Iím breathing in fresh air in a room with plenty of natural light. Iím going out later. I have to remember that when I buy the cheap fashion that is plentiful today, I am supporting a system that is unfair and abusive to women and children, sewing in conditions that couldn't be more unlike those of my own. Is it asking too much that I consider the lives of others who donít have the privilege of relaxing at a BBQ this Labor Day?
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The Conversation So Far
Kathleen Date 9/1/2014
What a good article, Susan!
Selene Aitken Date 9/1/2014
Thank you for the information and the reminder. I appreciate all you say! Thinking of the huge effect Gandhi had due in large part to his encouragement of everyone taking up spinning to keep Indian cotton and the industry in India. To empower Indians and boycott British goods. What you suggest about re-claiming sewing clothing at home has the same feel to me. A great reminder on this shop-like-crazy day.
Christine Carpenter Date 9/1/2014
Thank you Susan for all the info. It is good to be reminded of those tragedies. Often I think what can I do? My biggest solution to that is stop buying the clothing from particular designers & companies. It become a practice of mine to only wear "used clothing". I remember making my own clothes but money & time are an issue. There is a designer can't remember her name but is from North Carolina? She does a line of clothing that is from all recycled clothes. She also has a interesting business set up which eliminates the sweat shop garment factory. She makes the stitcher an independent contractor. This way she can work at home & set her own hours. Of course there are disadvantages to this also but it's a possible remedy.
Susan Liane, The Smuggler's Daughter Date 9/1/2014
Thanks Selene for the insight about the effect Gandhi had on the world when he asked people to spin their own cloth. This one move to boycott British goods was a game changer. Maybe we can boycott fashion in the American market that do not sign on for improving conditions in sewing factories. This could change things for garment workers all over the world.
Susan Liane, The Smuggler's Daughter Date 9/1/2014
Thank you Chris for the great ideas about using recycled materials. I haven't done much up cycling in my sewing but I too have admired the work of others who have. It is possible to pay living wages to workers who sew clothing in this country!
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