This week already marks my fifth week as an intern for SACTWU (South African Clothing and Textile Worker’s Union). I already feel like a part of the SACTWU family; everyone has been so welcoming and eager to get to know Justin and I. Even though we both have the same responsibilities and work as a team, we are both taking away from the experience in different ways. Justin is a Public Policy major, so he is interested in the union structure and operation, as well as Labour (note the South African spelling…) Law.
SACTWU perfectly aligns with my interests in different ways. I have always been interested in fashion and the clothing industry, so the union has allowed me to explore a different side of the industry. It has allowed me to see the clothing and textile industry as more than the production of a garment, but rather a way to earn a living and support a family. SACTWU has made me see the importance of stable employment, and how the fashion industry can provide such employment.
But why the textile and clothing industry? What does fashion have to offer that is different? First of all, the industry is considered a “job multiplier.” This means that multiple people are necessary to make one garment, and thus the one garment creates many stable jobs. In fact, it takes about ten people to make a garment, and one person to sell it. Also, a strong manufacturing sector is key to a developing economy, as it acts as a buffer protecting its economy from global economic fluctuations. Finally, the fashion industry can also help empower women, as most of its employees and leaders are women (future blog to come about this one…)
Working for SACTWU has allowed me to enter factories, meet shop stewards and hear their stories. It has allowed me to see how much people’s jobs mean to them, and how much they value the industry and believe in the union that brings them together. This has led me to realize how important it is to buy locally made goods. By buying a locally made garment, you are sustaining an industry that provides people with a livelihood. Buying locally made products literally sustains communities.
Buying locally is always difficult when dealing with imports from countries where labor is extremely cheap and workers are most likely exploited. The labor is essentially outsourced to be able to lower costs by having products made in countries where working conditions are not regulated. Working for SACTWU has made me realize how much this outsourcing has an effect on people’s jobs around the world. Almost every person we’ve spoken to has had some sort of experience with lay-offs due to inability to compete with imports. This means that even though locally made products are more expensive, they are supporting a (mostly) livable wage, making them worth the extra expense.
Obviously I’m aware that only buying locally made products is almost impossible. Especially as a college student, price vs. ethics is a debate that I still deal with. Being able to see the impact of the “Made is South Africa” label has swayed my purchases and made me more aware while in the country. I always look forward to finding unique pieces of clothing when I travel, and I am now especially mindful of ensuring that those pieces are made in the country.
As I have become more conscious of the importance of buying locally made goods, I realized that a brand that has received a significant amount of negative press recently is actually known for making its products exclusively in the United States. American Apparel’s slogan is “sweatshop free” meaning that everything is produced in the United States. The company operates the largest sewing facility in North America. They actively promote their business model, which “is not just about made in the USA, but is about designing a business that does not, at its fundamental core, rely on the relentless pursuit of low cost labor to survive.” They are dedicated to what they call “vertical integration,” meaning they integrate their manufacturing, distribution and creative processes to keep their company more efﬁcient than those who rely on offshore sub-contracting. Many of the points articulated on American Apparel’s website echo what I have been discussing in the office at SACTWU. Even though I am not going to go out and throw away all my clothes and buy new American Apparel clothing, I do appreciate every article of clothing I own from there even more. I also think that many other younger brands should look to American Apparel as an example of a business that has succeeded in creating careers in manufacturing, not just jobs.
Read more about American Apparel here: