When Fear Follows Fabric Along the Assembly Line

Times Staff Writers

Alice Foulo Ntoi’s job as a seamstress pays enough to support her husband, her four children, her mother and her two nieces. It also protects her from AIDS.

Nurses at the factory where Ntoi works give her free condoms and medical counseling. The factory owner, Shinning Century Ltd., sells her vitamins at a discount.

For Shinning Century, it’s not charity. In a country where more than 40% of young women are infected with the AIDS virus, protecting them means protecting the assembly lines of 48,000 factory workers who keep the Lesotho apparel industry humming. If it weren’t for the factories turning out T-shirts and jeans for people in North America and Europe, Lesotho’s AIDS crisis might well be worse.


Now the factories are threatened by the expiration of import quotas that for 30 years helped poor countries -- and poor women -- take part in the global economy.

The last of the quotas expired two weeks ago, but the jobs began disappearing last spring. Since November, six factories have closed their doors, leaving 5,600 apparel workers without paychecks. Other factories have reduced their operating hours because there weren’t any orders. At Shinning Century, the overtime work dried up.

Ntoi, like many women here the sole breadwinner in her family, expects the worst.

“If these factories close down, many bad things will happen,” she said from her home, a two-room cement-block house without electricity, heat or running water. “How will we survive?”

The social and economic implications of the end of quotas are enormous, in large part because women make up the bulk of the workforce in the apparel manufacturing industry. And in the developing world, women’s paychecks have been a driving force behind significant gains in living standards, health indicators and educational levels.

Nobody in the global trade community is sure how many people will be thrown out of work in countries that, unprotected by quotas, won’t be able to compete for contracts for cotton sweat shirts or men’s dress slacks. It could take several years for the reallocation of the manufacturing work to sort out.

But so many factories have already shut down -- hundreds in the last year in countries such as Mauritius, El Salvador and Bangladesh -- that forecasters talk in sweeping terms.


A conservative estimate is that hundreds of thousands of women will be thrown out of work. Although many millions more in China, India and elsewhere will gain jobs and economic power, that won’t mitigate the losses.

“I’m a free trader at heart, and there are thousands and thousands of poor, illiterate Indian women who will benefit,” said Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But the transition costs are very, very painful.”

For women in Lesotho, the grinding hours pushing cloth through sewing machines are preferable to the alternatives: migrating to South Africa, selling snacks on the roadside or bartering for sex acts after dark.

Thanks to her salary of $120 a month including overtime, Ntoi has been able to send her son to school, a feat in a country where the jobless rate tops 50%. What’s more, she has collected a small pile of doors, windows and bricks for the home she wants to construct down the road.

She may never get the chance. Late last year, her bosses warned that the daily production goal at the Taiwanese-owned factory -- which also has been hit hard by currency fluctuations that have made exports more expensive -- would have to climb sharply this year if Shinning Century is to survive. And Ntoi isn’t sure she can squeeze more work out of the 29 women she supervises.

“Sometimes I’m afraid that here in Lesotho, we are slower and the factories in China are faster,” she said. “Why are they not getting very, very tired?”

When Asian apparel companies set up shop in quota-protected Bangladesh in the 1980s, they hired men to work the sewing machines.

That was appropriate in a patriarchal society with a preference for sons, where girls consume fewer calories and receive inferior treatment when they are ill, contributing to a high maternal mortality rate. Women are expected to marry young and deliver large dowries to their in-laws. The Islamic tradition of purdah, the practice of keeping women confined to their homes or under wraps while in public, is common, particularly in rural areas.

As late as 1993, the female share of the workforce was just 8%, according to the Asian Development Bank.

That soon began to change, largely because of a discovery the apparel companies made about men: They couldn’t cope with the long hours, the monotony and the requirements for a quick turn of the cloth.

Over the objections of their husbands and fathers, Bangladeshi women moved into the factories, taking a path followed by other women in thousands of manufacturing hot spots around the globe.

Trade experts had not foreseen that happening. When the Multifiber Arrangement, as the quota system was called, was set up in the 1970s, the objective was to protect manufacturers in the United States, Canada and Europe from low-cost competition. But by setting annual limits on the amount of apparel and textile products that could be imported from any one country, manufacturing work was spread around the world.

That provided an unexpected boost for poor countries trying to get a foothold in the global economy. Lesotho and Bangladesh were coveted, among others, because they had abundant, cheap labor along with valuable quota rights to export to the United States and Europe.

And women, with their nimble fingers and agility behind sewing machines, became the workers of choice.

Until recently, one of them was Ankhi Akhter, who shares a single room with her uncle, his wife and two children in a two-story tenement in a poor Dhaka neighborhood.

Slender and bright-eyed, with six years of school behind her, Akhter came to Bangladesh’s capital city from an outlying village six years ago at age 15. Her uncle agreed to take her in as long as she helped pay for the rent and food.

Akhter did that -- she earned $50 a month sewing T-shirts -- and more. After giving her uncle $17 a month, she had enough left over to cover her lunch every day, phone calls, clothing and occasional gifts for her relatives.

Still single at age 21, the young woman was proud that she could support herself and avoid what she viewed as the trap of an arranged marriage.

“My job meant a lot to me,” she said. “In a way, it can be said it was my life.”

In August, Amy Fashions, the factory where Akhter had worked for 18 months, closed. Her uncle immediately cut down on the amount of food she was allowed to eat and told her that she would have to leave the apartment if she couldn’t continue to help pay the rent.

Even if she wanted it, the escape of marriage would be out of the question. A suitor, Akhter said, would “ask for a lot of dowry, to mend the flaw that I have worked in the garment industry.” In many parts of Bangladesh, people view female garment workers with suspicion. “They think we are bad persons,” Akhter said.

Predictions that Bangladesh could lose as many as half of its 1.8 million apparel jobs -- 85% of which are held by women -- is troubling to activists who have worked to change the status of women in this predominantly Muslim country.

Emboldened by their economic independence, female garment workers in Bangladesh have resisted the efforts of conservative religious leaders to force them back into their homes. They have learned to read and write, sent their daughters to school and sparked a boom in the cosmetics industry.

“One of the things that helped us progress in Bangladesh and kept us a relatively moderate Muslim country is the recognition of women’s economic roles and women as industrial workers and breadwinners,” said Naila Kabeer, a Bangladesh native and an economist at the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex, England.

Across the globe, women who work, and control their paychecks, are more likely than men to be the drivers of change for their families and communities. Study after study has found that as the economic status of women improves, so do literacy levels, caloric consumption and other health indicators.

In Ivory Coast, expanding women’s share of cash income significantly enlarged the share of the household budget going to food and decreased the amount spent on alcohol and cigarettes, according to a study published in the Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics. In South Africa, cash received by women through an old-age pension program increased the funds spent on schooling and food for their grandchildren, a World Bank study showed.

Extra income in the hands of women in Brazil resulted in more of the household budget going to education, health and nutrition, according to a study by Duncan Thomas, an economics professor at UCLA. And when mothers’ incomes were increased, their children ended up growing taller and weighing more.

In Cambodia, where the garment industry is responsible for more than one-third of gross national product and 93% of exports, the effect of the 220,000 apparel jobs is visible even far from the factories in the cities.

Money sent home by apparel workers -- in Cambodia, as everywhere else, the vast majority of them women -- has trickled out into the countryside. There it has been spent on school fees and healthful food, aluminum roofs and cement-lined water wells.

The effect is immeasurable. Hun Srean, a 22-year-old who earns $3 to $4 a day stitching men’s shirts in Phnom Penh, supports two brothers and four sisters who live in the tiny southeastern village of Chreykrahim.

“It feels good that I can contribute,” Hun said. But she added that the influential role she plays goes far beyond money.

“When I tell them to study because my work in the factory is hard, they listen to me.”

In garment factories around the world, salaries are low and the work is grueling.

No matter how fast she stitched, Juana Antonia Hernandez de Santos never made much above El Salvador’s minimum wage, currently $5.04 a day for workers at factories that export.

Sometimes, her entire body ached from the strain of pushing fabric under the needle for as many as 17 hours a day, goaded by the relentless pressure of production goals for sweat pants or blouses or trousers.

But compared with the toil of cutting sugar cane, as Hernandez did before leaving the countryside for the capital, San Salvador, when she was 18, garment industry work seemed pretty easy. What’s more, those jobs came with health insur- ance.

Sewing clothes for North Americans and Europeans was a way out.

“I didn’t want to be a housekeeper like my mother,” said Hernandez, 31, who lives in a one-room house with a corrugated metal roof, dirt floors, no plumbing and raw sewage running through the yard.

Last January, Hernandez was fired from her job at the OrientalTex Co. clothing factory because, she said, she had agitated for better pay and working conditions. The South Korean owners closed the factory last summer, putting 400 people out of work.

In a market flooded by an estimated 12,000 unemployed apparel workers in just the last year, Hernandez has been unable to find work. The $139 a month her husband brings home from his job at a clothing plant isn’t enough to feed their three children.

So Hernandez has decided to head to the United States, where she is willing to take almost any job.

“Whatever there is. Washing clothes. Cleaning. Ironing. Caring for children,” she said. “Anything short of prostitution.”

Although the dollars she would send from the United States would keep her family clothed and fed, there would be a huge cost: 12-year-old Gabriela would have to quit school to care for her brothers, ages 5 and 3. Hernandez, who left school after the ninth grade to work, had hoped her daughter could avoid the same fate.

“This is sad ... and it gives me pain,” she said. But with the disintegration of the country’s apparel industry, “it’s necessary.”

More and more women are making the trek north. Jesus Aguilar, executive director of Carecen International, a San Salvador immigrant rights organization, estimates that northward migration from El Salvador doubled last year from 2003, based on deportation figures from Mexico, and nearly half of the migrants were women.

“Don’t be surprised,” he said, “when these people are knocking on your doors in Los Angeles.”

Alice Foulo Ntoi has tested negative for HIV, but it’s hard for her not to worry. Ntoi’s brother-in-law died of complications from AIDS last fall. Her sister died of AIDS-related complications two years ago. At Shinning Century, the weekend funerals are becoming disturbingly common as the death toll accelerates: 11 in 2002, 17 the following year and 26 in 2004, according to the factory’s manager.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, women make up 57% of those living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to the United Nations Development Fund. Lesotho, completely surrounded by South Africa, has one of the world’s highest HIV infection rates because so many men returned home from working in South African mines carrying the deadly virus.

In Lesotho, which has a population of about 2 million, more than 29,000 people died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2003. But the statistics could become more harrowing.

At Shinning Century, Ntoi appreciates the discount on vitamins -- $2 for a month’s supply -- because they “keep me strong.” More important, she persuaded her husband, recently laid off from a gold mine in South Africa, to wear the condoms the factory dispenses to all employees.

That was no small victory in a society where women are legally subordinate to their husbands and fathers. The legislature is only now considering a law that would give married women control of property, inheritance and their bodies.

“Even though we work hard,” Ntoi said, “the factory protects us.”

By the laws of competitive advantage, an undeveloped country hundreds of miles from the nearest port shouldn’t have an apparel industry. Lesotho does largely because of the African Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000, which was designed to stimulate the continent’s poorest economies.

After the act was passed, Washington removed most of the import restrictions on clothes made in Lesotho, and Asian manufacturers seeking access to the U.S. market poured into the country. In just three years, the number of apparel factories more than doubled to 50. And more than 90% of the workers are women.

During the day, the dirt streets around Maseru’s factories fill up with hundreds of people, mostly younger women, who have come into the city from their villages seeking work. Many set up crates by the road and sell fruit or snacks to the lunch crowd. Even those with jobs may end up engaging in what’s known here as “transactional sex” to stretch their paychecks. A quick copulation in the back of a car buys them a ride home or a meal.

Last year, Jennifer Chen, Shinning Century’s manager, joined with Lesotho’s government and several AIDS advocacy groups to launch the country’s first in-factory AIDS education and testing program. The U.S. government has given Lesotho $1 million to help fund AIDS testing centers and provide education.

Fighting AIDS and keeping women in the garment factories have become one and the same battle.

“There’s no good in us saving our apparel industry if we have no workforce,” said Mpho Malie, Lesotho’s minister of trade and industry.

Indeed, every time an employee dies, Chen has to hire and train someone new, which costs time and money. And sick workers have a higher rate of absenteeism and lower output.

About one-half of the factory’s 1,300 workers have been tested; at least 30% are HIV positive. A factory nurse provides nutritional and health counseling and takes those who are ill to medical clinics where they can get anti-retroviral drugs and other treatment.

For Shinning Century to stay in the game now that the quotas have ended, Chen figures she will need to increase production by at least 30%, a staggering goal even if one-third of the workforce wasn’t ailing. She seeks compassion from an unlikely source.

“We are saying to China, ‘You are so big, you have already moved to higher products like electronics. Why do you need more? Please leave some opportunities for the least-developed countries.’ ”

Iritani reported from Lesotho, Dickerson from El Salvador and Marshall from Cambodia.



Clothing the world

Under a complex system of quotas, developed countries parceled out access to their markets to factories in several hundred countries. For many of these poor countries, apparel production is now the primary driver of their economy and women make up the majority of the workforce.

Apparel exports as a percentage of each country’s total merchandise exports, 2003

Cambodia: 75.5%

El Salvador: 62.6%

Bangladesh: 62.3%

Sri Lanka: 50.0%

Mauritius: 49.9%

Honduras: 38.3%

China: 11.9%

India: 11.5%

Source: World Trade Organization



Imports, exports

Top 10 apparel importers* (In billions)

E.U. $101.3 United States 71.3 Japan 19.5 Hong Kong 16.0 Canada 4.5 Switzerland 3.9 Russia 3.7 Mexico 3.0 South Korea 2.5 Australia 2.2

Top 10 apparel exporters* (In billions)

E.U. $60.0 China 52.1 Hong Kong 23.2 Turkey 9.9 Mexico 7.3 India 6.5 United States 5.5 Bangladesh 4.4 Indonesia 4.1 Romania 4.1

*Data are for 2003 Source: U.S. International Trade Commission