Charles Dickens would have loved documenting this one

Chicken Feathers And Garlic Skin: Diary Of A Chinese Garment Factory Girl On Saipan - Chun Yu Wang, Walt F.J. Goodridge

Chicken feathers and garlic skin is a Chinese idiom for the stuff left in the pot after the broth has been made.  "The phrase is used to describe 'petty things; things of no importance; things often overlooked as having no merit or value.'  It is perhaps the perfect metaphor for the often faceless, nameless girls who toil away in the garment factories of the world . . . who often go overlooked in the public dialogue and perception of the world at large."

Chun Yu relates her experiences as a factory worker in the garment industry on the island of Saipan.  The situation she describes would have been familiar to Oliver Twist or to the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.  To add insult to injury, she had to pay to get a job and she had to pay again to keep her job; bribery and corruption run rampant.  Workers were strongly encouraged to live in the company barracks and to eat the company food.  Penalties were imposed if you chose to live and eat elsewhere.  


The living conditions were horrible, rats and other vermin ran across the cot while she was trying to sleep at night, and the food was served with visible hairs and other unappetizing items floating about in the stew.


Working conditions were equally deplorable.  Sometimes the working day was 16 hours in length with no time off for water breaks or bathroom breaks.  Neither the factory nor the barracks were air-conditioned.  Safety equipment was ignored.  There was no time off for illness or injury and it was up to the factory manager to decide whether or not you were sick enough to go to the hospital.


You might wonder how corporations can get by with this behavior in this day and age.  The answer is simple -- bribes and intimidation.  Somehow the factory management always knew when inspectors or potential clients would be coming for a tour.  Therefore, they were able to prepare the warehouse and the workers prior to the visit.  Safety equipment was put back into place, bathrooms were repaired, and employees were instructed in the answers they should give.  The worker interviews were always conducted in the manager's office with the manager present.


It's my opinion, now, that Martha Stewart (and others) may very well have been unaware of what was going on in the factories where their designer clothing was being constructed.


In 2009, employment laws were changed to raise the minimum wage, and most of the factories in Saipan have been closed, moved to other countries where financial arrangements are more favorable.


Chun Yu no longer works in a factory but she still lives in Saipan where she works in an American-owned restaurant, and the working conditions are, in many ways, easier.  This was a worthwhile read.