A few months ago I hopped on a plane and headed to Vietnam. The aim was to get a real world look into the fashion industry, and I was sure I’d be exposed to a generous dose of the grim realities that garment workers face every day.

The plan was to meet up with a team from New Zealand clothing retailer, Kathmandu, and spend a few days at one of their factories, observing a routine social compliance audit. I wanted to get a good feel for how things were run, and even try to get a glimpse of how workers felt about their jobs and how they were treated. I don’t know what I expected to find or experience but I was determined to go in there with my eyes wide open.

We hit the ground running, travelling two hours out to the factory and being met by factory management on arrival. I was surprised to find that of the eight managers meeting us, only one was a man. We were greeted by hugs and smiles and, to be honest, the warmth of the staff caught me off guard. I was still sceptical though - unsure whether it was a routine bit they put on for naïve westerners.

A-clothing-factory-in-Vietnam.jpgA clothing factory in Vietnam | Source Kathmandu

The Kathmandu and audit teams kicked off the opening meeting, explaining their auditing ethos. It wasn’t about striving for perfection, they said, but rather partnership; emphasising that they would be happy if the end result of the audit was not a perfect score but a commitment to continual improvement. This wasn’t met by confusion or argument from the factory staff, but more smiles and reassurance that this was a common goal.

I worked there for the next few days, completing the audit and following up any non-compliances. There weren’t any major issues - definitely none that suggested any worker mistreatment. I was almost surprised. Despite all the signs pointing to that conclusion, I still expected us to find a case of child labour or some bad working conditions. It dawned on me that I had a bias and it needed to change.

We had the privilege of getting to know a few workers and to hear their stories. One young woman told us of a recent hardship she’d faced. She found herself suddenly in a situation where she had to provide for her entire family, and she knew she had to find more money so she could support them and fast. She was working at the factory at the time but couldn’t see a way to earn more money as working overtime is discouraged to prioritise worker wellbeing, so this wasn’t an option to earn a few extra dollars. She then started to look for work at other factories and came across one that would give her plenty of overtime and would even give her a loan. The catch was that the loan would have an interest rate of 100%.

I quickly realised that this could be a case of forced labour. If she took the loan, she’d almost certainly spend the rest of her life having to repay her debt, never quite being able to get there. This debt would then be passed down from generation to generation, making slaves of her children and their children because of the impossible nature of repaying such a huge sum. Luckily the girl didn’t take the loan, she told us. She had spoken to her manager at the factory where we were, and while they couldn’t offer her overtime they could provide a loan. This loan wouldn’t come with a high price tag. It would have no interest, she would have plenty of time to repay it, and there would be no consequences.

A factory manager later explained to us that all the managers put money from their own pockets into a fund so that when a worker is in need, they can financially support them. I found myself quite overwhelmed and emotional at this news. Whatever scepticism that had been lingering immediately vanished. This factory really cared about their workers and was committed to their growth and wellbeing.

Garment-factory-workers-growing-veggies-for-their-work-lunches.jpgA garden at the Vietnamese Factory where they grow food for the workers | Source Kathmandu

I know not all factories are like this and I also know not all stories are true. But after my experience at the factory, getting to know workers; visiting their houses and meeting their families, and hearing about the many amazing programmes they have in place for workers, I knew that my experience had been an authentic one. It encouraged me that just because something isn’t made in New Zealand, it doesn’t mean it’s made through exploitation. It also reminded me to have an open mind and look at each situation for what it is, instead of what I expect it to be.

I know the garment industry is riddled with harsh realities and if I wanted to, I wouldn’t struggle to find countless cases of child labour and bad working conditions. But going to Vietnam gave me a renewed sense of hope in the industry – it’s definitely not all good yet, but it’s definitely not all bad either.

Annie-and-a-garment-factory-worker-in-Vietnam.jpgAnnie with a clothing factory worker and her baby girl in Vietnam.


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