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Free trip to Cambodia…exclusive fashion knowledge…unique cultural experiences. Three young Norwegian teens are about to be shocked when their one-month immersion into the Cambodian garment industry begins revealing the deadly truths behind our textiles. What began as a social experiment set up by Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, developed into a five part mini-series–deemed Sweatshop: Dead Cheap Fashion—documenting true moments of these Cambodian garment workers. Although the story of a native Westerner visiting the third world has been heard many times over, this story is somehow gaining a new momentum.
In two weeks time, Sweatshop– Deadly Cheap Fashion has gone viral with a following of tens of thousands of Facebook shares and nearly 4,000 tweets. The series centers around three wealthy fashion bloggers, Anniken, Frida and Ludvig, who make their living promoting top brands online, with their job focusing around being “seen” wearing the latest trends from the catwalk. For their one month experience in Cambodia, they are restricted from their normal routines to the day to day life of a garment factory worker. The teens are forced to adapt to the standard $130 per month wage, living all aspects of life like a factory worker, by budgeting and making ends meet for food, water and basic needs for $3 per day. This lifestyle forces them to radically shift priorities, as even toothbrushes are now a luxury.
Red carpet treatment is off the table, as the mini-series puts the teens into the daily life of Sokty, a 25 year old garment worker, struggling simply to feed her family. Shocked to find that Sokty sleeps on the dirt floor of her one room home, comparable in size to a typical Western bathroom, the teens join her in an typical 8 to 9 hour work day, put in front of the same industry sewing machine for the first time in their lives. An intense moment is captured when Anniken breaks down into tears after discovering, one worker she meets has been sewing the same seam on the same sweaters for 14 years of her life. She asks to the camera, “What kind of life is this?,” a question that Sweatshop encourages the viewer to ask of themselves.
The raw transformation of these fashion-hungry teens brings about a sense of honesty that had perhaps been lacking in our past encounters with stories of this nature. The documentary series allows the viewer to truly empathize with the circumstances of garment laborers, as Sokty’s hopes for an education and a dream of becoming a doctor are displaced by the need to survive.
Fortunately, change is on the horizon, as Anniken, Frida and Ludvig return from their venture, ready to speak out through Sweatshop and other interviews. No longer content to hide behind a mask of tulle and luxury designs, Frida speaks of her realizations with moving empathy.
“These people are actually just that: people. They’re not machines. They’re not our happy elves.They’re people, just like you and me, with a mortgage, with children, with health issues they need to take care of, and they can barely afford to eat.”
Continuing the conversation, Anniken and Frida leverage their spotlight in the fashion world to illuminate the need for fairer wages and better conditions. The message behind Sweatshop is not that we should stop buying clothes altogether, but that we must open our eyes to the realities of where they are from and respect the people who make them.
In the aftermath of the final episode, “What Kind of Life Is This”, the trio is ready to face the challenge ahead. In an exclusive interview with Ecouterre, they share that in order for the goals of Sweatshop to be fully realized, “we must open people’s eyes so we can put pressure on the garment industry.” The responsibility to create positive change does come down to the brands themselves, by simply paying $2 more for a garment, wages of workers could double, all the while giving the industry a similar share in profit. However, it is up to us as shoppers to be willing to pay a few cents more in order to provide a better reality for garment workers.
In the last words of their interview with Ecouterre, the teens leave us with their surprising advice on building this industry-changing momentum.
“Don’t stop buying clothes, but open your eyes to where they come from and think twice. Try to do your best to spread the message across the globe so we can make a difference.”