Three years ago, the people who produce NPR’s Planet Money were inspired to manufacture their very own t-shirt—from scratch—and document the story all along the way. They provided an update on the project in an episode that aired two weeks ago.
During the update episode, reporter Adam Davidson described talking to women in Chinese garment factories. Many of the sentiments in their stories mirrored those of women I talked to at the Caracol Industrial Park for my story on Haiti’s manufacturing sector.
Two Chinese workers told Davidson that the job was awful and completely boring. But they said they much preferred it to working on duck farms, which is what their parents did back in their home village. To drive home the point, one of the women contrasted her life with that of her mother: her mother had never bought makeup, had only one outfit—a “Mao suit,” as Davidson called it. The daughter, however, goes to the mall every Sunday, her only off day, to buy cosmetics and hang out with friends.
“That Sunday,” Davidson says, “that weekend of one day, was sort of enough to her to make up for that week or drudgery, which was not quite as much drudgery as working at home on a duck farm.” He adds that the woman told him she had a plan: save up some money, and eventually return to her home village to start a business and support her family.
One of the workers I talked to at Caracol and who appeared in my story, Rosedaline Jean, is a 22-year-old who’s worked at the garment factory for five months, her first job ever. “This isn’t the ideal job,” she told me, “but it’s better than nothing. I don’t intend to make a career in this job. I plan to start a business, and I’m already saving for it. But it’s difficult, because my salary is practically nothing.”
That sentiment—that Jean doesn’t want to cut-and-sew garments as a long- or even medium-term job—ran through the accounts of other women I talked to who didn’t make the published story, and accounts other journalists have published.
Youseline Joseph, 24, used to sell second-hand clothing and knickknacks in Caracol, but her micro-business went under because most of her clients bought on credit and never paid. She says she now works as an inspector at the Caracol factory. “If I still had my business,” she says, “I would not have worked here. It’s tiring. I spend all day on my feet, and I don’t have an adequate salary. But it’s still better to have a job.”
“I will not stay here all my life,” she added. “I will start my own business, when I get the money. My colleagues and I, we save money together in a sol,” a routine practice in Haiti—a group of about 10 people pay into a fund each 15 days or month, and each person takes the entire pot, doing with it what they will, in turn.
Jeantilia Charles, 23, has worked for three months sewing garments at Caracol: “Before, I did nothing,” she says. “My life has changed somewhat with this job, which is also my first.” Charles says she doesn’t want to stay in the job for a long time: “Eventually, I plan to start a business or go to Port-au-Prince. There, I have a family who may be able to help me find a better job.”
The story of sewing t-shirts together isn’t a glamorous one. But neither is that of working on a duck farm in China or being a smallholder farmer in rural Haiti, and a significant part of the t-shirt story is the potential to change people’s lives for the better in both places, and many in between.
If you want a Planet Money t-shirt, you still have about 7 hours to back their Kickstarter project for $25 and order one.
Photo by me