|Your shirt off their backs - the story behind most cotton clothing
Toronto Star February 2, 2009
shirt off their backs
By Craig and Marc Kielburger
restaurant, we overheard a common exchange. "Nice shirt," said
"Where's it from?"
The fashionista offered a store name. We returned to
The question lingered.
Where's it from? Not just this
shirt. Any shirt. Look at your own
label. Where's it from?
are it went through numerous hands before ending up on your
where the question takes new meaning. Where's it from?
And, who's it
In the beginning, there was a child.
Crouched in a field in
Uzbekistan, that child is most likely
contributing to the primary industry
of the second-largest cotton
exporter in the world. Not because he wants to.
Because he has to.
When cotton makes up 60 per cent of his country's
everyone is expected to pitch in. Through school closures
campaigns encouraging loyalty to the president and the country, the
government sends children to the fields. In 2000, UNICEF estimated
per cent of kids aged 5 to 14 were harvesting the cotton. Some
plastic water bottles filled with pesticide to spray on
most fortunate child gets 3 cents for every kilogram picked - a
worth $1.15 on the world market.
The Uzbek government maintains that no
child labour exists in their
country. Still, come September, rather than
heading to class, the
children diligently pick the cotton, pack it up and
ship it off.
Most countries that grow cotton - places like Uzbekistan -
their own textile industries. So, the t-shirt continues on its
journey from the hands of a child to a manufacturer in China.
in massive factories the size of multiple football fields,
machines spin the
cotton into yarn while looms weave the soft fibre
into fabric. It's a
practice that used to belong to skilled craftsmen
- artisans who took pride
in delicately creating the fabric. Today,
labourers paid cheap wages produce
the cloth at discounted prices
before passing it on to a woman in
There, cotton textile manufacturing is king. About 4,000
factories fill the capital of Dhaka and employ 2.5 million people,
The woman making our t-shirt arrives at work at 5 a.m.
and spends 13
hours at her sewing machine. She is surrounded by younger
some under the legal working age of 13, who hem her seams and
the item off.
The woman makes about $25 monthly - the
wage - barely enough to afford food and her
squalid living conditions.
Still, she works without complaint. In fact,
her fear is that
conditions get better. The company might leave Bangladesh
for a place
with more lenient laws. If that happens, she would face
hunger and potentially prostitution to keep her family
So, she finishes the t-shirt and passes it on for its journey
the Pacific. Into the hands of dockworkers, the shirt is loaded into
40-foot shipping containers and sent to North America.
Into the back
of a tractor-trailer, then it's driven across the
country to your local
mall. It is unloaded and placed on a rack by a
likely gets minimum wage, ranging from $7.75 per hour in
New Brunswick to
$8.75 in Ontario.
From there, the item is bought - one of about 1.4
t-shirts sold annually in North America. It's pulled over
It's thrown in the wash.
It begs the question, "Where's it
The short answer would be the store in the mall. But the short
neither tells us the whole story nor makes us informed
T-shirts don't just magically appear on hangers. Chances are
crossed more borders than you.