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Going straight to the source

In his new book, author Kelsey Timmerman describes   visiting the factories that produced his favourite clothes.

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Kelsey Timmerman and the jacket for his new book, Where Am I Wearing.

As he entered his late-20s, Ohio native Kelsey Timmerman enjoyed the customary trappings of middle-class American life, including a new home, a refrigerator and a flat-screen television. An all-consuming interest in globalisation and its effects, however, led him to temporarily abandon Middle America to fly around the world in search of the garment workers who made his favourite articles of clothing: the flip-flops made in China, the T-shirt made in Honduras, the boxer shorts made in Bangladesh and the Levi's jeans made in Cambodia.

His book on the trip, Where Am I Wearing?: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People that Make Our Clothes, was released in December by John Wiley & Sons. In it, Timmerman largely eschews the facts and academic theories that dominate more heavily researched - and more informative - looks at the international garment industry, opting instead to focus on the people he meets and the lives they live. The result is an entertaining but sometimes thinly reported book that lacks much of an argument beyond Timmerman's call for consumers to be more "engaged".

In reporting the book, Timmerman spent a month in Cambodia, mostly in Phnom Penh. He took garment workers bowling, visited their home villages in Kampong Cham province and danced at the Golden Boss nightclub. In an interview with the Post, he talks about what sets the Cambodian garment industry apart from its peers, why conditions in Cambodia were the best he encountered and why that's "kind of a scary thing".

Where did you see the best labour conditions? Where did you see the worst?  

Where I managed to get into factories, Cambodia had the best. They weren't too different from the factories I visited in the United States. I never made it into a factory in China. In Bangladesh, I went to some pretty ugly factories. There, you have guys working without shirts for safety reasons because they are near so many moving machine parts. Those are definitely conditions that you would call sweatshop conditions.

Bangladesh was also where I saw the most child labour in the industry. But just because children aren't making our clothes in countries like Cambodia doesn't mean children aren't working. The informal sector is where most of the kids are working.

Do you think you were shown a representative view of the garment industry, or were you shown better-than-typical conditions? What about in Cambodia?     I think it varied. It's not like I visited 10 or 15 countries, so to make broad generalisations about the industry as a whole is kind of tough to do. In Bangladesh, my translator lied to everybody and told them I was a prospective buyer. So I think they showed me factories they wouldn't have if they knew what I was actually doing.

Levi's selected the factories for me to see in Cambodia, so I suspect they chose one of their better factories. But after talking to people, I would say that it was pretty much representative of the industry there.

In what ways is the Cambodian garment industry different from the others?

Well, there's obviously heavy unionisation, which brings both good and bad effects. Most workers in Cambodia have quite a lot of opportunity to learn about rights. The International Labour Organisation  is really strong in Cambodia. They inspect pretty much all of the factories. This is not the case in Bangladesh. And in China I think there is one union, and it's government-run, so it's basically not a union. So the Cambodian garment industry is one of the best garment industries when it comes to being monitored and workers knowing about their rights.

The Cambodian garment industry is one of the best...when it comes to being monitored and workers knowing about their rights.

So is the Cambodian garment industry an example worth emulating, or one with just slightly better conditions?  

It's kind of a scary thing, actually. If that's our top example, then what does that say about the rest of the countries with major garment industries?
I think some things can be emulated. A lot of workers in other countries would benefit from the ILO. I think that's something that should be emulated. In Bangladesh, the industry is basically a free-for-all.

But the garment industry in Cambodia is not perfect. Overall, I think it's headed in the right direction. Hopefully, it can be an example, and hopefully the industry doesn't get sucked away to China.

What is the biggest problem facing  the Cambodian garment industry?

Well, there's quite a lot of corruption. One of the workers I met had to pay a US$50 bribe to get the job. And, you know, the factory probably doesn't even know anything about that. And I think that goes on quite a lot in Cambodia.

You write at one point about how your experience at the Stung Meanchey municipal waste dump showed you that "one man's sweatshop is another's opportunity". In reporting a January New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof visited a city dump and drew essentially the same conclusion: that "a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty". Did he steal your idea?

No, I don't think he stole my idea. I really like his work, and people who can focus on things like that are great. But I don't totally agree with his assessment of everything. A lot of the factories in Cambodia are not sweatshops. They're not what people think of when they think of sweatshops - hot, gloomy, dark places where people are yelled at a lot. To call the factories in Cambodia sweatshops kind of demeans what the workers do.

When people read my book, I would hate for them to think, ‘Hey, they could have worse jobs'. That just makes for an apathetic shopper, a shopper who says, ‘It doesn't make a difference what brand my clothes are or what countries my clothes come from. If the workers didn't have this job, they'd be working at the dump'.

 I think people need to make conscious decisions about what brands they support and what countries they support.

Who were you writing this book for?

Ì guess my target audience would be your average consumers who walk into stores and don't think much about where their stuff comes from. That's kind of how I was before I got caught up in this whole thing.

There are a lot of books about globalisation that are filled with facts and figures, and they're great books - but I think your average consumers might not be so interested in that. They might be able to relate more to people. I wanted readers to be able to meet the people who make our clothes.

Interview by Robbie Corey-Boulet

Hard copies of Where Am I Wearing?: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People that Make Our Clothes can be ordered through Monument Books (www.monument-books.com). The store plans to carry paperback copies of the book beginning in April.

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