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I Was a Child Sweatshop Worker

I Was a Child Sweatshop Worker

By: Nancy Johnston

Glitz and glamour, Hollywood stars and red-carpet events: that’s how the media portrays Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard where I was born and spent the early part of my life.

The reality was the exact opposite. In the 1980s, this was where poor people lived.

My family, ethnic Chinese, were labelled boat people because we were among the tens of thousands of refugee families who fled by boat as a result of the Vietnam war. By 1977, many countries, including the USA, granted the families asylum status. My mother (heavily pregnant with me), my father, older sister and uncle were airlifted from a Malaysian refugee camp to Los Angeles. A few months after they arrived, I was born in a hospital on Sunset Boulevard. I describe my early existence as being much like the fashion industry’s supply chain: product origin – China, produced in Malaysia, made in America.

Downtown LA Garment District

Downtown Los Angeles is just further south of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard. LA has many districts, including the garment district, a hub for manufacturing. Many garment factories were illegally set up, hiring undocumented Mexican immigrants and newly arrived Asian refugees.

Many of these factories will knowingly take on more than they can manufacture to secure an order, and then outsource the work to another factory to meet the quota. Unless the client fashion brand manufactures and makes in-house, there is no chance of transparency in the fashion supply chain if manufacturing is outsourced. With the influx of refugee families in the late seventies and eighties as a result of the Vietnam war, the perfect conditions were created for exploitation to fuel the hungry appetite of the fast fashion industry in America.

Child’s Play

I don’t remember much of my childhood – most of it flew by so quickly. By the time I was four years old, Helen and Susan, my little sisters, had arrived, and my elder sister Jenny was old enough to start school. I remember that with more mouths to feed, there was always a tense atmosphere about how food would be put on the table and the family would be provided for.

One day, my mom took us to an amazing playground that had a climbing frame, swings and a sandbox where lots of kids were playing. It was a departure from our daily play environment at home, which consisted of an alleyway of garages full of broken-down cars and the smell of engine oil and grease. Helen and I dashed towards the swings, leaving my mom, who shouted strict instructions for me to look after Helen. My mom took the pram with Susan into a trailer building and said she would be right back.

After a while, caught up in play mode in my new environment, something in the distance caught the corner of my eye mid-swing. It was the outline of woman coming out of the building where my mom had entered. The woman dropped to the concrete steps, sat doubled over, curled up like a ball and buried her face into her hands and knees. She was sobbing quietly, unaware of any spectators. It was my mom.

It’s the only time I’ve seen her so vulnerable. It had a deep impression on me. She had taken us along while she went to ask about day care, so she would be able to work. It was the only time my parents asked for help through the welfare system and they had been denied. The visceral experience of that feeling – seeing and hearing a parent’s woe, despair and concern for their child’s future – is a powerful one. To this day, the image of my mother, or any parent I see in a state of overwhelming despair and uncertainty to secure a better future for their children, still hits me in my gut.

My mom, unaware that I had seen her, transformed herself into the usual stiff-upper-lipped Asian dragon mom for which she had a reputation, and called my sister and I over. She hadn’t realised I’d seen her only a few moments earlier at her most vulnerable. To this day, she still doesn’t know.

Going to Work with My Mom

Following that incident, I ended up in an illegal sweatshop factory in downtown LA with my mom, instead of day care and playing in a playground. The factory was full of other refugee women and my sister and I were working there too. I mostly remember running around a maze of clothes.

The factory, as you would expect, was full of rails of jackets, blazers and blouses, all covered with clear plastic bags. The clothes were made with that extra-padded broad-shouldered look that was popular in the eighties. Being kid-sized, with tiny fingers and good attention to detail, I was put to work in the finishing ‘department’ with my mom, who steam-pressed and ironed the clothes and placed them in the plastic bags at the end of the production line.

I remember being paid between $0.50 to $1 per day, enough to buy a medium-sized slurpee from 7 Eleven. It was quite fun being around the women in the factory, who would joke and talk. As a kid, it was nice to be part of something. I felt so important – my role was to ensure all the hangtags were hanging properly, all the buttons in place. I was given a small pair of scissors to cut any loose thread hanging out from the seams or from the buttons. I liked ensuring all the little details were tended to at the very end of the production line. 

When I was five, the job at the sweatshop ended because I was old enough to start primary school. With that, the memories of working in the fashion industry faded and I grew up to work as a social worker instead.

Tengri – A Fashion Brand is Born

Fast-forward three decades…  I travel the world and spend time living with a nomadic herder family in Mongolia (visiting Mongolia had been a lifelong dream). The young family was saving for their daughter’s future education. Seeing the parents struggle, and knowing that this little girl would never be able to get the same top-notch education nor enjoy the opportunities I had, just because she was born in Mongolia, was heart-breaking.

Mongolia is the world’s second-largest supplier of luxury fibres. Nomadic herder families supply the world’s top luxury fashion brands and their work contributes to a €9 billion global cashmere market. What baffles me is that the families are still living on subsistence wages of around £1 per day. This fired me up enough to set up Tengri, a knitwear label and noble yarn specialist based in London. We trade direct with 4,500 herder families who supply yak fibres through our ‘fairshare’ business model.

Never did I expect to go from sweatshop child worker to starting and owning a fashion brand. Tengri is still in its early days. Yet, since launching in 2014, we have enabled herders’ household income to increase by somewhere between ten and eighteenfold, proving that fast fashion can be a force for good after all.

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