BEHIND OUR FASHION
In late July last year, I travelled from my home in New Zealand across to Sydney (where a lot of these shots were captured) and most importantly, to Nadi, Fiji. With the help of Web Media Fiji, I would witness exercises that occurred far beyond the aerobics class, 10am in the resort pool.
Below, I have managed to (finally) draw conclusion on my experience.
We are pawns to mass consumerism for many of the same reasons we are to television. To ensure we fall at its feet, TV must elude that it is everything it is not: a large box sitting in our living room, presenting distorted forms of reality. Its success in doing so is what makes TV so seductive. As we escape into it, we quickly forget the elephant in the room. Oblivion is bliss, right?
Consumerism, capitalism, materialism – however we wish to entertain the concerning cocoon on a gloomy Wednesday – relies on the same sense of oblivion.
To be unaware, or so we’ve assured ourselves, exempts us from acting with a conscience. The more we know, after all, the more we’d struggle to act the same way, at least, without feeling immoral. Our solution? It has been to avoid the education; to remain in blissful oblivion. “I didn’t know” is a globally renowned excuse that we first exploit in pre-school to explain our milk-stained moustaches; later, to reason our bull-dozers and excavators.
If you wish to preserve your excuse, to be the woman who lived in a shoe (as ironic as this sounds), I’d advise that you close this tab now. This post is about more than just you and I. It’s about more than a dress and a party and a boy too. This is about everything and everyone.
Most importantly, this is about the other people and their unsaid side. BEHIND OUR FASHION is written (and filmed) to reveal such questions that are as much yours to be answered as they are mine. It is for the girl shopping in Glassons as much as for the congregation of the UN.
That first day in Fiji, I would already see something I had seen for the first time. Right in the heart of Suva operate two major clothing factories, Mark One Apparel (work and school wear, sports clothing including AFL and NRL) and Kookai, the popular Australian women’s brand.
The last thing I’d expected, in this balmy destination – one of which I’d always associated with holidaying and pineapple cocktails – was to experience shame. How ignorant I had been. How blinded I was by the media, by my own meandering experience – to think of no further Fijian world beyond that of the workers singing at the resort, selling a familiar packet of Oreos – to my delight – at the local mini-mart. The kids who climbed coconut trees and wandered aisles of fake Gucci, laughing and chasing one another.
How had I only associated factory life, the tendency for scant wages and poor conditions with the tagline, “Made in China”? How had it seemed somehow different – somehow not possible in a vacationland such as Fiji?
Now I could attempt to be more politically correct. I could and would likely benefit from falsifying my preconceptions – but I don’t write with intention to do either of those things. I write because if it has not occurred to me that factory life – I’m talking about more than just factories here – was positioned itself a few kms away from my resort, I assume many of you are just the same.
As it turns out, all those very things I have detailed above, are possible in beautiful Fiji. It is the truth. And yet, it is also not quite what you think.
Here in the Fijian garment industry, a wage between 90c – $1.50 NZD / hr is not viewed as exploitation. Just below minimum wage ($1.82 NZD / 2.68 FJD), this is considered an opportunity for unskilled workers.
Workers are lined row by row, in accordance to each stage of the design and production process. This aside, there is space. They receive breaks. And perhaps what surprised me most: they are encouraged to contribute their opinion. Hanging from the roof of every 10m of factory are signs prompting that they speak up.
If one of hundreds of factory workers has an idea, then, or experiences an unhappiness, their vocalisation is indeed supported. Granted I hadn’t witnessed this go down in practice, that the notion was so stressed in these two factories, was certainly impressive.
Of course, this would not suggest that factory life, incongruent with all previous deductions, is without great hardship. To truly understand or fathom what this life consists of, is beyond the capacity of both you and myself. For every obvious struggle, there are no doubt several that reside below surface level. I ask that you respect this reality as you read on.
For it can be difficult to find, especially for unskilled workers, employment is very valuable in Fiji. And despite this – despite too that staff are paid regularly, and for over-time – factory owners all across Fiji, including Mark Halabe and John Barton, struggle with the inconsistency of staff attendance. So much so that to show at work in a sequential manner is actually commendable of a bonus.
But even this fails to work. According to Halabe and Barton, the bonus is a source of mixed reaction. For many, it has an effect opposing its intended one: it actually encourages less motivation to show in coming days.
And it’s not simply a motivation problem. Not simply that work ethic in a developing country does not equate to that of a nation developed. Indeed, development creates standards. And with these, a pressure to uphold them. There are far too many moral, cultural, social and financial consequences of not showing at work, that for most of us, we wouldn’t dream of it.
For many Fijians, however, the ‘it’ in that sentence applies to leaving their kids unwatched, in order to head to work.
This reality, extremely commonplace within factory labour, justifies the latest endeavour of Mark Halabe, owner of Mark One Apparel. He is currently constructing an on-site childcare facility intended purely for staff utilisation. Set to hold about 30 kids, he hopes this will only be the beginning of good change. While he admits the attendance of Fijian workers is pertinent to the operation of his business, it is obvious that just as much, he cares. Tough as he comes across, there’s a lot of heart to Halabe. It doesn’t go unnoticed.
I left both factory tours pleasantly enlightened. This is not to preach a readiness for promoting mass consumption – nor that you can rest easy with the dynamics of factory labour. It’s complex: the art of satisfying everyone involved. And whether such satisfaction shall ever be met by those who are accustomed to earning little – in part with those whom are obligated to earning a lot – is certainly undetermined.
So what is the answer? Must we teach workers to ask for more? Propagate the end of their tolerance for less? But then we’d have to homogenise them – much the way we have done with the rest of the world. We’d have to change their currency and their culture; subsequent attitudes to work, to money – to life.
And so the questions arise: is it enough our issue to embark our thoughts? And if so, who are we to claim these as any more superior?
Then again, to ignore our role in the issue, and leave it as is, appears just as narrowly plausible. How we shall ever avoid to undermine one culture at the same time as exploitation by standards of another, I do not know.
I know, however, that I have not been disappointed by the operation of these factories in Fiji. My satisfaction has nothing to do with the little amount these workers earn nor because they expect no more. It is even further from linking to the profits of both businesses.
Rather, it is quite simple. I have witnessed effort here. I have witnessed it in the hands of Fijians; they smile giddily as I walk past their work. I have witnessed it again in stone – the same stone which assures it will someday support Fijian families, particularly, their children.
While the cross of developing and developed culture appears something with which we will consistently struggle, I am glad to see that we try. No, it is not enough. Yes, cultural disparity is far more. But I am glad to see that, despite this, we do not run, acting to mentally and physically disconnect from our counterpart. I am glad that we acknowledge the way we are, at times, responsible for what we deem their misfortune. I am also glad that we can discern the way we are not – and yet, that we choose to involve ourselves anyway.
I am relieved to learn that above all political bullshit, my suspicions were right. We are human at heart, after all. We can’t help but care.
Not a single one of us is indispensable. It is a blessing, that in an industry where we could quite easily become viewed this way, grand effort is constantly seeing that we are not.
To Mark Halabe and John Barton, I credit your work, your research and your endeavour to understand the reality you navigate on the day-to-day. You’re admirably aware that there are two sides to every story.
May we all be so aware, so that one day, we’ll witness more than solely effort to reconcile disparities. Somehow, some way, we’ll witness their very reconciliation.
Photos and Video shot by Adrian Jackson