When I first sat down to read Where Am I Wearing?: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People that Make Our Clothes by Kelsey Timmerman, I was concerned that this was going to be a preachy travelogue espousing the evils of buying clothing made in developing countries. Instead, it is a surprisingly even-handed look at the garment industry.
Timmerman travels to Honduras, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and China in search of the factories that made his favorite T-shirt, boxers, jeans, and sandals. He doesn’t approach his journey as any sort of political statement; it is more of an excuse to get paid for travel. His attempt to locate the factory in Honduras that made his T-shirt was more of an afterthought while in the country. He had no luck, but didn’t try too hard. He has better luck in the other countries. In Bangladesh, he made friends with a man who helped him lie his way into a meeting with one of the manufacturers, who allowed him to see a factory. In Cambodia, the manufacturers, proud of the great strides made in their country, and labor laws in place, were all too pleased to accommodate Timmerman. On the opposite side of the spectrum, he could not get into a factory in China. He couldn’t even get into the manufacturer’s office.
In all the countries he visits, Timmerman spends time with the factory workers. They all have the same story: the workers have left their families in the countryside, moved to the city to earn a wage, and send most of their earnings home. The workers do not get to see their families frequently. They live in what Westerners would call abject poverty; they call it the emerging middle class. The general consensus of working conditions is that the people work long hours for low pay, though the factories seem to generally be clean and reasonably safe. Most of these countries have child labor laws in place, forbidding anyone under 15 from working.