‘Threadbare’s’ investigative comics explore the hard choice some women face between sweatshops and sex work
When journalist Anne Elizabeth Moore set out to report an investigative series on the garment industry and sex trafficking, she said she immediately discarded the idea of doing traditional long-form articles in favor of something more visual — specifically, comics.
“I’ve been writing about the garment industry and worker conditions in Cambodian factories and worker conditions at fast fashion factories for years,” she says. “But people have read that story already. It doesn’t process anymore. With comics, we could present the information in a different way. It’s about being able to depict the heretofore unimaginable.”
The book isn’t the first comics journalism effort to land on bookshelves. Artists such as Joe Sacco, Susie Cagle and Sarah Glidden have long used illustration to report in-depth stories on political tumult in locations from the Balkans to Syria to Israel.
Moore’s series, which was launched in 2011, has examined everything from sweatshop labor to food access in ways that make those difficult topics accessible.
“Threadbare” looks at the garment industry — what is essentially one of the top employers of women on the planet, and one with a generally poor track record when it comes to wages and conditions.
The collected reports look at the history of the trade, the lives of those employed in it (from sweatshop workers to retail staff to models) to the high human cost of fast fashion — which has put pressure on manufacturers to churn out ever cheaper clothes at ever faster rates.
“People faint on the factory floor,” Moore says. “They physically cannot keep up with the workload.”
“Threadbare’s” drawings by Leela Corman, Julia Gfrörer, Simon Häussle, Delia Jean, Ellen Lindner and Melissa Mendes allow Moore to engage with readers about complex (and often dry) material that would be infinitely more difficult to communicate with words alone.
A story called “Zoned,” for example — told in five comic book pages and fewer than a dozen cells — looks at the complicated role of foreign trade zones in the international garment trade. (These zones allow companies to keep prices low, since goods that are moved through them don’t accrue tariffs.) It’s a simple, graphic depiction of something that could otherwise take several thousand words to explain.
“With comics,” Moore says, “you get a picture of it right in front of you.”
Some of the book’s more intriguing chapters look at the connections between clothing manufacturing and sex work.
For poor women in countries such as Cambodia and Bangladesh, professional options are limited — often to an excruciating rock-and-a-hard-place choice between poorly paid sweatshop work and better remunerated sex work, which comes with its attendant legal consequences and social stigmas.
Well-meaning nonprofits geared at eradicating human trafficking (many funded, in part, by the garment trade) succeed in getting some women out of prostitution. But once they’re out, often the only professional choice they have is the garment industry.
“Sex trafficking happens, no question,” Moore says. “But what some of these efforts do is take women who have already worked in the garment industry, and often by force or social pressure, put them back in the garment industry — criminalizing the only other option they have.”
It’s a vicious cycle that the author chronicles in a number of stories in “Threadbare,” including a pair titled “Out of the Factories,” in which Moore is seen touring one nongovernmental organization’s rehabilitation efforts in Phnom Penh, Cambodia — in a space that looks startlingly like a garment factory.
As long as garment wages remain low (a worker in Cambodia earns around $140 a month), it’s a circle that poor women will continue to inhabit. The industry, Moore says, is “the largest employer of women worldwide. And it is probably the foremost responsible for the gender wage gap.”
“Threadbare” is not light reading. But the comics format makes an opaque topic artfully illuminating. We may never visit the inside of a sweatshop. But the drawings take us right inside, amid the dusty piles of fabric and the whir of sewing machines.
All of it will get you thinking about the true price of that $20 dress at the mall. It may not be as much of a bargain as you think.
Anne Elizabeth Moore
Microcosm Publishing: 160 pp., $13.95
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