The trip hadn’t even started, and already it had been thrown off track by a factory wall collapsing.

Three fashion design students from Parson’s School of Design were headed to Cambodia to meet the garment workers who make our most affordable clothes. The trip, in partnership with the Levi Strauss Foundation, was planned by Remake, a nonprofit organization organizes and films listening, learning, and volunteering tours for designers and fashion students into the communities of garment workers.

But before they arrived, news came through from the brands Remake was working with that the factory they were supposed to visit had a wall collapse. No one was injured, as it reportedly happened outside of business hours (and the students and Remake couldn’t find any news stories about the collapse), but now Remake’s founder, Ayesha Barenblat, had to scramble to figure out another factory for the students to visit.

“With the nasty bits of fast fashion coming more and more to light, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get into factories, let alone with a camera crew,” says Remake’s content manager Eleanor Amari. A recent hit Norwegian reality show that dramatizes the negative aspects of fast fashion in Cambodia hasn’t helped, either. “One of our strengths as a non-profit is gaining access into factories because we aren’t in the business of auditing or pointing fingers at factories. Our focus on the makers themselves helps creates a more peaceful dynamic.” In other words, Remake just wanted to give voice to some of the Cambodian garment workers, women the same age as the students – 18 to 24 ­– laboring to bring these designs to life, often in deadly working conditions, with wages that just aren’t enough to live on and no hope for moving up and out.

The truth is, fashion students are definitely used and abused in their own way in New York City, but will work their way up the chain of command, and one day will be making decisions that affect the lives of garment workers in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, and other countries that manufacture our clothes. With consumers increasingly demanding transparency and ethical manufacturing practices, maybe these future designers should see first hand how clothing is manufactured.

The trip held special significance for the students. Allie Griffin’s (above center) great grandmother used to make clothes in New York City’s Garment District, and her thesis focuses on garment workers. Anh Le (left) is the daughter of two Vietnamese refugees who worked in the garment industry before migrating to the U.S.. And Casey Barber (right) is interested in creating more sustainable patterns and textiles in union with factory systems.

The three students ended up entering a denim factory with Target’s Social Responsibility and Quality Control team. “It was so big and stuffy and hot,” Anh Le says. They’re there all day.” But this factory is a good one – workers have set hours of 8 am to 4 pm six days a week, an hour for lunch, and an optional two hours of overtime.

This Cambodian factory has its own campus, two large buildings, and 2,000 workers who manufacture the jeans assembly-line style. No worker has the satisfaction of making a pair of jeans from start to finish. “One person is doing one thing all day long,” Barber says. “They’re doing one seam, pass it, one seam, pass it.”

“Some people just cut the threads, or just add the grommets,” Griffin says.

The fabric inspection team’s job is to simply stare at the denim as it comes out of the roll all day long. It’s a little soul crushing, but completely legal.

“We all agreed we didn’t realize how much handwork goes into distressing the denim,” Griffin says. “We thought it was more mechanical. But it was guys with box cutters literally cutting holes in your jeans with no gloves. When they are spraying the chemicals to bleach the jeans, they did have masks, aprons and gloves, but they don’t have goggles and their arms and legs were bare. It’s a cultural thing in Cambodia that they wear sandals. Closed toed shoes are hard to enforce.”

“There’s no public transportation. The factory doesn’t own any vans,” Le says. The workers get $7 to spend on transportation a month. The students rode home with a garment worker in a vehicle similar to a tuk tuk or auto rickshaw. “It’s a wagon with boards of wood, so you have to distribute weight so it doesn’t tip over.” Le says that was an upscale option. “There are also trucks with open backs, basically for livestock. They often have accidents, and there is drunk driving. The drivers just wait around all day and drink, and drive the workers home.”

Minimum wage in Cambodia just went up in January from $140 to $153 a month. That is short of the $171 a month the unions were hoping and fighting for. But the government worry is that raising wages too much will spur companies to take their business elsewhere, like Myanmar – which recently reopened to the international market and is on track to become another garment manufacturing hub – or Bangladesh, where the minimum wage is only $64. (Take a moment to consider how much cost that would add to one pair of jeans. According to my calculations based on a pair of jeans taking 45 minutes to make, Cambodia’s higher minimum wage raises the cost of each pair of jeans by $1.39.)

Plus, when the minimum wage is raised, quotas are raised along with it. “Yes, it’s great that the minimum wage is going up, but they are making them work harder and harder, and produce more garments,” Le says. Sometimes workers bring home work with them to meet the quota. With electricity being really expensive in Cambodia, that eats into their wages further.

“They need to stop thinking you can be sustainable and pay nothing,” Griffin says. “The quotas are large and deadlines were really short, and that’s when you have subcontracting.” Subcontracting is when a certified, inspected factory subcontracts work out to a dangerous, exploitative factory outside the city.

The students didn’t get to visit one of these subcontracted factories. Instead, they traveled two hours outside of Phnom Penh to a small school in the middle of rice fields for a meeting organized by the international workers rights organization Solidarity Center. Workers showed them labels they had snuck out of these factories, including Zara, H&M, and Tommy Hilfiger.

The workers spoke of factories that pop-up during the holiday rush, then shut down before paying wages.  They said they made less than $100 a month despite working long hours. Some said they were forced to take pregnancy tests and if it came up positive, they were fired.

“I get paid per 12 pieces, but if there’s even one single error in the batch, I don’t get paid at all,” one worker said. “Sometimes I cry because I fear I won’t meet the quota and get paid.”

The subcontracting question is a tricky one. Even if a brand does everything by the book, what is to keep a factory owner from seeing dollar signs and taking the risk to subcontract out, in order to keep more of that profit? H&M for one, has a strict no-subcontracting policy, that they enforce. If they find out a factory has subcontracted or broken another rule, they give the factory six months to either comply, or phase the factory out. And according to their latest sustainability report, the factories they use pay more, on average, than other regional factories. But many of their factories serve other brands as well, who might not have such strict policies. It’s messy.

Something that the ethical fashion community is coming around to is the idea that in order to truly prevent exploitation and subcontracting, brands need to own their own factories. Is that possible for a mass market brand? Still, the students came away thinking more highly of some brands than others.

“When you see what the top CEOs are making and what people at the bottom are making, that makes you angry,” Griffin says. “The owner of Zara, he’s one of the wealthiest people ever! Zara kept coming up, and not that they have people here trying to help. But they are a huge part of the economy there. They do have a say.”

“We knew that it’s made by so many people, but seeing it firsthand in those factories how many people go into [making a garment],” Griffin says. “The estimate is a hundred hands touch a piece of clothing. How is that shirt selling for $5 then?”

A garment worker at the Solidarity Center meeting

When asked what they think brands should do differently, the students had a few suggestions. One was to actually go to the factories to see what is happening. “A lot of the problems we found was people putting faith in the other audits,” Barber says. “There’s huge corruption in the audit system where there’s a lot of paying off. The ministry of labor is corrupt. A lot of these brands are like, we’re getting this company to do our audits so we don’t need to go. But there’s no better research than first hand research and going yourself.”

 

There’s also the problem of social responsibility teams not talking with the designers and buyers at the same company – their goals are often at odds with each other. “We found out a lot of companies actually have teams that try to make everything more ethical and sustainable, slowly,” Le says. The students cite Gap as one company that is on the ground in Cambodia, setting up meetings with other brands to help raise labor standards.

“The social responsibility team often doesn’t have any power,” Griffin says. If an audit is performed and flags safety issues, a brand’s inspection team will demand the factory fix those issues (without providing any funding to do so), while its buyers simultaneously demand lower prices and faster turnaround. “There are audits, but then they don’t actually do anything to improve the conditions,” Griffin says. “It’s all on the factory to fix it.”

 

A bright spot for the students was their visit to the workshop of the ethical, zero-waste brand Tonlé. “They had a villa which was their factory. They were outside knitting together. It was much more community based,” Barber says. “At Tonlé, they don’t patrol the floor like the managers do at the big factories. It was still organized and there was an order to everything, but completely different.”

“One of our biggest takeaways to help improve manufacturing over there was to add in more quality products, not just giving them the fast fashion,” Barber says. “Because everything is fast, fast, fast, cheap, cheap, cheap. If you give them more difficult, intricate pieces, their skill set grows, they get paid more.”

“Everyone should have this trip because of the human connection,” Barber says. “If you never actually see it… even seeing The True Cost, you can set that aside because you weren’t present, and go Black Friday shopping. They were adamant that we need to spread their story as far as we can. Do you know how many documentary people come over? They never hear what happens and it’s not getting better.”

Le, Griffin, and Barber want to continue to pressure brands to improve, to invest in factory improvements, pay for safe transportation, relax quotas and schedules, and open up the lines of communication between designers and the social responsibility teams.

The students don’t think everyone should stop shopping at brands that manufacture in Southeast Asia. “Their economy is now dependent on textile factories,” Griffin says. “The women we spoke to, they just want a better future for their children, to go to school and get an education, the same as our parents want for us. A lot of them move from the villages into the capital to work in the factories because it’s better money than farming. They don’t have any other jobs anyway.”