Brace yourself, my dear
It’s a holiday in Cambodia
(Dead Kennedys — “Holiday in Cambodia”)
As of late, the internet has been in a bit of a turmoil – perhaps with much less intensity than it should be, though – because of a Norwegian documentary that follows three young fashionistas in their painful foray into the underworld of Cambodian sweatshops – those places where slave labour is employed and where the clothes we buy “cheap” at Zara and other high street shops come from.
I’ve read a few articles on it, and a friend sent me the link to the documentary, “Sweatshop: Dead Cheap Fashion”, which is divided into five episodes and is available (with English subtitles) at the website of the largest newspaper in Norway, the Aftenposten. It was painful to watch – especially the last two episodes –, as the film confronts us with the reality that anywhere in the world there are people subsisting (or dying) to produce what we buy in supermarkets, in shopping malls and online stores.
It just takes a good look inside our closets, or among our electronic devices to realise that our hands are dirty with the suffering of those people. I believe we can all agree on this, so let’s stop acting as hypocrites, shall we? In a sense, the three young Norwegians – Frida, Anniken, and Ludvig – represent all of us; they embody all of us “useful idiots” who are part of the extremely cruel relationship between consumption and the cheap (or semi-slave) labour employed when companies want to provide us with products at a quicker pace and lower costs.
Still, I was horrified by the behaviour of the two girls, Frida and Anniken who, for a considerable part of the documentary, keep relativizing and excusing the obvious plight of the sweatshop workers, resorting to phrases such as “they are used to it”, “sewing is not the worst job in the world, there are worse things”, or the absolutely clueless, “at least they have a job”. By the way, it is from one of the girls that comes the most intense reaction to one of the saddest moments in the documentary, when the three young Norwegians interview sweatshop workers, and the price they have to pay for working under such inhumane conditions becomes perfectly clear.
The girls’ initial reaction – equal parts spontaneous and non-empathetic – reveal a great sense of entitlement and superiority, as if working in sweatshops and living in poverty were perfectly OK for populations of developing countries. At a certain point of the documentary, the young Norwegians spend a day working in a sweatshop, and it is from Anniken that comes the most terrifying, revealing comment in that sense:
This is something they do every day. They probably have a sort of rhythm. I have never in any job experienced such time pressure. It is different for me compared to them. They have a straight job. They have a job, at least! But I would never have worked like this. I am not used to it. The others do this every day. It is tougher for our bodies than theirs, because they are used to it. To sew is not the worst kind of work in this world. Just to sit by the sewing machine. Lots of things are much worse. They just sit there all day. It is not physically tiring in that way.
The process of denial which Anniken goes through is obvious. The reality she faces in Cambodia is not only geographically detached from her homeland. For a young girl born in a country with the 25th GDP in the world, the fact that someone has to share a single room that doubles as a living room, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, all at once, with their whole family must be unthinkable. Perhaps as a defense mechanism against the shock caused by reality, Anniken refuses to feel actual sympathy for the sweatshop workers, until the truth becomes too overwhelming for her to keep on refusing to suffer along with them. This is the moment when she shows her most human side.
Still, the aftertaste that remains in my mouth is bitter. Where is humankind headed to if young people can take that long to show solidarity towards the suffering and deprivation of others (if not just being completely incapable of doing so)? As the wise George Orwell once said, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. Reading this sentence can be enlightening at times, but seeing it personified in the behaviour and speech of two Norwegian girls is simply disheartening.
(A version of this piece was published in Brazilian Portuguese on Medium. You can find it here: Holiday in Cambodia)
To find out which industries employ slave, underpaid or forced labour, check out Free2Work’s reports on http://www.free2work.org.