On April 24th a factory collapsed into rubble near Dhaka, Bangladesh killing at least 1,200 people, as they made clothes for around nine cents per garment, and brought international awareness to the horrendous working conditions in sweatshops that make a majority of the clothes Americans wear on a daily basis.
From http://nytimes.com: “Bangladesh is the world’s second-leading garment exporter, trailing only China. Bangladesh has the lowest labor costs in the world, with the minimum wage for garment workers set at roughly $37 a month. Such low labor costs have attracted not just Walmart but almost every major global clothing company, including Sears, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and many others. Bangladesh now has more than 5,000 garment factories, employing more than 3.2 million workers, many of them women. Labor unions are almost nonexistent, and a labor organizer, Aminul Islam, was tortured and murdered last year.”
This tragedy is just one (although one of the worst) in a long pattern of similar incidents that have occurred as a result of the unsafe, unsanitary, and all-around slave-labor working conditions that exist in Latin-American and South Asian factories.
In 2005, almost 70 workers were killed when a Bangladesh garment factory collapsed.
In November, just 5 months ago, a fire in a factory not to far from the recent building collapse killed 112 workers as they made shorts and sweaters that would be later sold at Wal-Mart and Sears.
Just this Thursday morning a ceiling collapsed in a Cambodian shoe factory killing at least two people as they sewed pairs of Asics for about $6 per day.
“The shoe and garment industry is built upon huge profits and little concern for the well-being of their workers,” spokeswoman for the Clean Clothes Campaign, Tessel Pauli, told the NY Times, “it is inherently unsafe and dangerous to work in. As long as workers are marginalized and deprived of their basic rights, the situation will not improve.”
Obviously fashion is a large part of Hip-Hop culture whether we like it or not and Hip-Hop related clothing and shoe companies, much like blood diamonds, are brought to you by major corporations making huge profits off of cheap and exploited labor. Obviously this leads to ethical and moral questions. How can the decedents of slaves and oppressed people now use slave-labor to make themselves rich? Isn’t that what Hip-Hop was supposed to be fighting against?
While some revolutionary artists have tackled this issue, a Hip-Hop group out of Canada named themselves Sweatshop Union and rhyme about the subject throughout their albums. Immortal Technique raps: “I’m from the third world…where they murder union organizers…and kids make sneakers for a quarter a day” in his song “The 3rd World.” Public Enemy did a song about “the politics of the sneaker pimps” and you can check out the song by Jedi Mind Tricks about sweatshop labor, “Shadow Business”:
While some MCs and groups in Hip-Hop have taken up the cause of sweatshop labor and fashion, many artists have taken endorsement deals from sweatshops using companies like the Gap and Levi’s. Even the top “Hip-Hop” clothing labels also make their products using sweatshop slave-labor.
According to lrights.igc.org, “Hip-Hop” apparel-profiteers like Timberland, Karl Kani, and Perry Ellis also use sweatshop labor. In 2004, a document from China Labor Watch stated that Kingmaker Footwear Holdings Ltd, which makes Timberland boots, noted “numerous child laborers in the factory, and a work schedule that requires employees to spend 91 hours or more per week at their machines to meet production quotas.” It was estimated that Kingmaker factory workers are paid a mere 55 cents per pair of boots made while they get sold for $85 or more. Perry Ellis and Karl Kani continue to make their clothes in Myanmar (formerly Burma) even though the U.S. considers the country a military dictatorship and imposed sanctions on them. The average wages for garment workers there are around 4 cents per hour.
To be fair, fashion has always been a part of Hip-Hop culture. Adidas, Nike, and Timberland shoes, b-boy track suits, Kangol hats and baseball caps, puffy winter coats, and gold chains have been donned by Hip-Hop legends from Rakim to N.W.A. since Hip-Hop’s inception. Its naïve to think that somehow when Hip-Hop artists owned their own clothing lines that they would magically be able to not make their clothes in sweatshops and still compete with other producers. Its pretty simple math, workers in America expect to get paid at least $8-$15 per hour to make shoes that someone in Bangladesh, Cambodia, or Honduras will make for 8-15 cents. Not only hourly wages, but as we can see in these factory disasters, the cost of keeping your workplace clean, safe, and employee friendly is a price that big companies want to keep as low as possible. To try and compete with the Walmarts and Gaps of the industry without engaging in the same type of worker oppression would mean not understanding the nature of a capitalistic system (even the shirts RHHR uses to print on come from countries like Guatemala and Mexico.)
If we look at the entire story, we can see how Hip-Hop and the fashion world have traveled full-circle together, in a way:
– First, many clothing companies like Gap and Levi’s choose to ignore “youth of color” markets in favor of the stable “middle-class white” market.
– Then Hip-Hop culture, started by poor, urban, youth of color, creates booming new fashion trends like graffiti art, break-dancing track suits, shoes without laces, sagging pants, baggy clothes, backward hats, and more which creates millions of dollars in revenue.
– Third, companies that missed the “Hip-Hop fashion boom” like Levi’s shut down factories in the U.S. (many of them in poor communities of color) and move them to sweatshops in places like China and Honduras and exploit the working people of color there (according to http://colorlines.com, in the 80s Levi’s closed 58 plants, putting 10,400 people out of work. Gap did the same thing, subcontracting with 3,600 factories in 50 countries by 2001).
– Then those same companies spend millions of dollars to hire Hip-Hop artists (including Common, Mos-Def (now Yasiin Bey), Talib Kweli, De La Soul, L.L. Cool J, Missy Elliot, Run DMC, and even DJs Shortkut and Rob Swift) to re-brand their products to appeal to the growing number Hip-Hop fans, now mainly white suburban youth.
– Finally, now Hip-Hop artists can create their own clothing lines with great success due to the fact that they also exploit the slave labor of poor people of color in third world countries.
As many may remember, in 2003 the National Labor Committee (NLC), which keeps tabs on the working conditions in the third world, said that a factory making clothes for P. Diddy’s “Sean John” and Jay-Z’s “Rocawear” in Cholma, Honduras violated basic human and workers rights.
From nytimes.com: “According to Charles Kernaghan, Director of NLC, most urban consumers would be appalled if they knew of the horrendous conditions garment workers were forced to endure inside sweatshops to make hip-hop apparel…20 workers who attempted to form a union said they were immediately fired, and subsequently smuggled Rocawear and Sean John labels out of the sweatshop as evidence. A year and a half later, however, Rocawear still refuses to comment on the story while Sean John claims no responsibility for the working conditions inside of factories.”
According to http://lrights.igc.org, a 19-year-old Honduran apparel worker, Lydda Eli Gonzalez, said the factory’s managers yelled and cursed at workers, forced them to work unpaid overtime and fired employees for being pregnant. Ms. Gonzalez traveled to New York from Honduras to ask “Diddy” to pressure the factory’s owner to treat the workers better. ”My purpose is to represent all the sewing machine operators in Honduras and to put an end to the humiliation and labor violations,” Ms. Gonzalez said. ”Sean Combs is a man with great power and influence, and we think he should help us and help end these violations.”
One positive reaction to come out of the Sean Jean/Honduras situation was from Reggaeton superstar Tego Calderón who turned down Diddy’s
offer to model for and endorse Sean Jean’s spring collection by appearing in commercials as well as a Times Square billboard due to the Latin-American sweatshop revelations…and other underground MCs are felling the same way.
“For me, I find it so ironic that Levi’s, of all companies, is going to try to make a profit off of hip-hop culture, on top of that Latin hip-hop culture, when there’s so many people here they exploit so much, and the companies do their best to keep that out of the media.” Jason Morteo, a 17-year-old Chicano lyricist, beat junkie, and grafitti writer from San Antonio told colorlines.com after Levi Strauss closed a factory in SA, laid-off more than thousand workers, and then moved the jobs to Costa Rica. Esperanza Garza, an organizer with Fuerza Unida, also in San Antonio, told colorlines.com that she “hit the roof” when she saw Levi’s Super Bowl commercial: a young Latino, wearing Levi’s and a tank top, break-dancing down the street in Mexico City, listening to Hip-Hop group Control Machete.
“They are trying to sell to us now. We are the new market. They can’t fool us. We know who they are,” Garza said. While the company courts black and brown youth, it continues to exploit their parents here and abroad.” “It’s disappointing as a hip-hop artist, and as a Latin American, that I know something so wrong is done to my people, but people are starting to go out and buy these clothes,” Morteo said, “people are so deceived, they don’t know the full truth about what this company has done.”
To end on a positive note, lrights.igc.org highlighted a couple Hip-Hop clothing labels, like No Sweat, a clothing line from Maine, which sells union made non-sweatshop clothing from Kenya, South Africa, and Canada. No Sweat’s owner, Adam Neumann stated that Hip-Hop luminaries like Dead Prez and Tego Calderón were at the top of his list for potential spokespersons.