Your blue jeans trail of misery

Blue is normally my favorite color, but after my recent trip to Lesotho I will have to reconsider. The water I saw exiting two clothing manufacturing plants and entering nearby fields was the color of ink. A steady stream of this filth entered a space surrounded by cattle grazing, children playing, and adults interacting, turning the area into a cesspool. From this field, the refuse enters a nearby river, flowing first into South Africa and later into Namibia.

Lesotho, a country encircled by South Africa, has become home to dramatic contrasts. Possessing an outstanding landscape with mountains and plateaus that defy description, it is also a land of increasing numbers of sweatshops and abject poverty for the workers who make them function. Textile and garment factories, often owned by Taiwanese capitalists, are popping up like chicken pox, taking advantage of low wages and government blindness to both horrendous working conditions and environmental devastation. Wages for these sweatshop workers average around $56/month, out of which workers are expected to make ends meet, renting one-bedroom homes with no running water or restroom facilities; renting furniture; buying food; paying school fees for their children; and paying for medical care.

The blue refuse water from these sweatshops is the result of the dyes used in the production of jeans that are sold through U.S. retailers such as The Gap and Wal-Mart. Despite the manufactured image of these companies, they rarely let it be known that they ultimately pull the strings of these Lesotho sweatshops. To do so might raise troubling questions as to their own culpability in this horrific scenario.

What adds to this unsettling situation is that the rights of workers to organize to improve their conditions are regularly ignored, if not defied. An extreme version of this hostility was evidenced when workers in a particular factory protested management’s policies on production quotas. One of the worker-leaders was stabbed in the neck with scissors by a supervisor, resulting in her hospitalization. The government of Lesotho has taken precious little action in response to such outrages.

This situation exists in large part due to the ignorance and/or silence of the international community. Most of us care not to ask under what conditions our clothes are manufactured, or what it truly means that jeans are stonewashed. It is often more comfortable to act as if the clothes appear out of nowhere, through magic perhaps, and find themselves on hangars in stores. It’s just that there is no magic; just the hard work of regular people under abysmal conditions.

The workers of Lesotho do not want our pity. They also do not want our silence. They want our support as they fight for dignity and justice, and against crimes such as living next to a toxic marsh. Perhaps this means as little as asking The Gap or Wal-Mart to get their suppliers in order and have them do the right thing regarding the workers and the environment of Lesotho. Perhaps it means, since moral persuasion seems to weigh so little for most of these corporations that we get our jeans elsewhere, or go a little out of our way to get supplies that we would normally purchase in one of these superstores. This might help to underscore our basic point: inaction in the face of such horrors should be unacceptable. Inaction, in the face of the knowledge of such horrors, actually becomes complicity.





Bill Fletcher, Jr. is president of TransAfrica Forum. He can be reached at bfletcher@transafricaforum.org