While hanging up my coat at work today, I noticed that the tag said "Made in Guatemala." I haven't been exposed to any of the working conditions in factories during either of my trips. I assume that the conditions are not very sanitary or well paid.
I went to Google to explore a little more about what it is like to work in a factory in Guatemala. Amazingly enough, there wasn't the endless amount of articles that I expected to find. What I discovered was a confusing web of international laws and regulations that allow for foreign owners to build factories in third world countries in a manner that allows them to be exempt from local employment laws.
Prominent American retailers like JC Penney, Kohl's, and the Gap have all used contractors who operate factories in Guatemala. These factories, called maquilas, only create products for export. Raw materials are imported, the garments are assembled, and then the finished products are exported to first world consumers. The factories fall into a no man's land of regulatory compliance. Foreign companies own and operate the factories with little oversight by the local government.
Most of the employees in these factories are women, who are happy to find a small bit of financial stability and independence. Several reports indicate that workers are paid less than $2.00 per hour and forced to work unpaid overtime. The conditions can be inhumane--as in no breaks, no toilet paper, and a lack of safe drinking water.
The question remains, how much of my purchase price goes to the workers who made it? An amazingly small amount I am sure! The really hard question is whether or not I would be willing to pay more for my clothes if I knew that it would provide better working conditions for the workers who manufacture the garments. I would like to believe that I would pay more or at least buy from companies who don't exploit workers. The truth is that I don't even look at the tags when I buy clothes to see where they came from. I don't even know where to shop to buy clothes that aren't produced in maquilas. Even if I paid more for my clothes, who will regulate the companies to make sure that the working conditions improve and are maintained?
I have no answers to these questions but I can tell you that just seeing that tag makes me think about the people that make my clothes. I also wonder in what way I can make a positive impact in their lives. This situation is a long term problem that I don't know how to fix. For now, I'll start by being more aware.