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No Rights, No Hope
A visit to an appalling foreign garment factory awoke Kate Constantin's conscience.

By Kate Constantin

When I heard about the factory that collapsed in Bangladesh killing over 800 people, I knew.

I knew what the place looked like before the walls caved and the roof fell. I knew the hopeless look in the workers' eyes moments before panic set in.

I'd seen it before, when I worked as a buyer for one of Britain's largest clothing retailers and traveled the world oblivious to the working conditions in the factories we employed. Then management sent me to India to negotiate larger margins and faster production schedules.

After negotiating a contract in a fancy conference room, I told the factory manager I wanted to see the factory. "No ma'am, not possible!" he said.  "No visit, no contract!" I said.

I was led teetering down an unpaved alley through Bombay slums in my stilettos and pencil skirt, past tumbledown shacks. The factory was built on a fragile scaffold seven feet off the ground, with more makeshift residences hunkered underneath. It was constructed of patch-worked sheet metal and swayed as we mounted the rickety ladder to a door. We entered what felt like an oven.

Inside were more than 100 sewing machines each manned by a sweating worker clad in rags. The roof was so low I couldn't stand straight, with or without stilettos. The stifling air was filled with cotton dust. Beside each worker was a thin mattress where another slept awaiting his shift.

They looked at me, lost and dead already. These people had no rights, no dignity, no hope.

When I told my boss about the conditions she shrugged. The profit margin was over 90%. "Use it or lose it!" she said, and I did, my job that is. I began to only buy clothes labeled "Made in the UK", berating friends who didn't.

Twenty years later, things haven't changed. There have been hundreds of accidents and deaths in these factories and protests. But the status quo remains.
Until retailers are more mindful about sourcing their garments this slavery will continue. Change will take consumers exerting their preference for humanely produced goods at the cash register by insisting on declarative labeling.

So come on consumers, purchase with your conscience.

With a Perspective, I'm Kate Constantin.

Kate Constantin is a substitute teacher and freelance journalist in San Rafael.

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