Labor Abuse and the Importance of Place

I finally visited a garment factory- something I’ve been trying to achieve for more than a year. I’ve attempted to get in as a journalist, a student, even an interested tourist/global citizen. All efforts failed.

So this was truly cool. I entered as a representative for the ILO to interview the supervisor about paying for workers’ health coverage as mandated under a new government policy, and then separately to ask workers their candid thoughts on the health plan.

It feels strange to say this, but conditions at the factory (which produces for Nike and adidas) didn’t seem that bad. Lighting- though the kind of nauseating neon lamps used in malls- was adequate, noise not too loud, working space decent, chairs with backrests.

garment workers inside a nike/adidas production factory

But I’m told this is rare, that in other factories heat is unbearable, textile dust permeates the air, women stand and receive meager breaks, even when pregnant.

On one hand, workers I’ve interviewed have said garment factories cause countries to lose a generation. Thousands of young women are not learning transferrable, quality skills such as English or accounting or have intellectual stimulation. Instead they handle assembly lines, repeating the same motion daily. This results in an overall loss to the country’s wellbeing- Exploiting human capital or resources for export does not help a country’s sustainability.

However, factories employ people; workers earn salaries. Work is work; there’s always going to be some sort of hardship by definition. Most of the global workforce sits  in one position for hours, backs hunched and eyes strained on a screen. Not everyone can have amazing jobs, and to believe so seems as idealistic as thinking everyone can be rich, since jobs and income go hand-in-hand. And for better or worse, manual labor is necessary to produce the basics people need- farmers for food, textile workers for clothing and construction workers for shelter.

So, these jobs are going to exist. But what can be done is at least ensure workers are safe and healthy. <<Enter NGOs, journalists, the ILO>>

While Westerners tend to conceptualize these things as happening ‘over there’ and irrelevant (even though much of what we consume originates from such sources) labor abuse is very real everywhere- even in developed countries. Just a few months ago, I was on the flip side of labor inspection, learning a first person lesson on exploitation while living in France. To defray costs while studying abroad and because my visa would not allow other work, I planned to work as an au pair. A seemingly decent Parisian mother contacted me via a facebook group and we made an arrangement two months before my arrival that I would care for her kids 20 hours per week for $200/month and housing, which is difficult to find in Paris for one semester, let alone expensive. I love working with kids and have lots of great experience, knew I could handle a part-time gig, and felt assured in committing to Paris as I knew I had housing and a way to manage the expense.

But what I would soon find in a cruel twist of events is how horrible Parisians can really be. Truly. Horrible.

Upon my arrival, the mother- a very wealthy attorney and native Parisian married to another attorney (she told me she likes to fight and likes fighters and needs conflict in her life)- put me in a small room in her apartment instead of the studio we had agreed upon, saying she would move me there in a few days. The next morning she woke me at 6am confrontationally declaring (in front of her kids) she decided to rent out the studio and reduce my salary, since she could find cheaper labor. Utter shock. Her behavior as a spoilt Parisian socialite insensitive to the fact that I just arrived from across the ocean to a situation totally different than agreed upon made this week hell- and the bizarreness only spiraled. On top of my 7 demanding classes, I began a fervent search for new apartments or new au pair situations- anything I could find- and soon found she had moved my belongings into the bedroom of her 3 little boys, saying I was to sleep on a floormat there and watch her kids in exchange for a roof (without pay). ‘And don’t try anything funny with me,’ she said. ‘I know plenty of professors at Sciences Po,’ adding that if I tried to report her, she would claim that I injured her.

I peered into her naive beady eyes sheltered from any reality outside Paris and pitied her incapacity to treat people not as ‘help’ but as people. I told her off. I was stern. Asked who raised her, said her actions were illegal and abhorrent, that at least one of us can leave this still knowing we were a good person, and thanked her for serving as a reminder of how I never want to be. And I left, thinking it’s true money certainly cannot buy class.

Photo on 2014-01-22 at 19.39
posing with the devil’s children. poor kids

I stayed with a classmate (Moroccan not French..important distinction), and searched for housing, using Google translate on the all-French websites. I found an older woman living between Brussels and Paris with her diplomat husband seeking someone to look after her apartment while she was away in exchange for housing. Easy enough.

We met at her beautiful place and she told me she would hire me but first wanted to ‘see how I cleaned’. I gutted her daughter’s apartment that had been left in an absolute pig stye for 9 hours- bleaching, dusting, vacuuming- with a 15 minute break. I did this because I assumed I would be paid (surely any rational person would pay, right?). She seemed like a decent person, we talked a good deal and I ironically told her of my aspirations to work for the UN ILO out of my passion for labor rights.

But I was never hired- and never paid. She spent 5 euro on a fancy stamp to send a letter stating she didn’t need help anymore, thereafter ignoring my requests to be paid for my hard labor.

Eager to finally settle, I moved in with a nice family whose matriarch had also contacted me via the Paris au pair facebook group. She was respectful and I drafted an official agreement letter before starting. Things went well for a month and I enjoyed tutoring the kid in English- until the mom started pushing for more hours and less pay, saying she could pay someone else less, that I ‘have a bedroom here and need to do more for it.’ When I reminded her that I was working the exact schedule we had agreed to, she said, huffing, ‘And not a minute more’. Her husband had also acted a bit flirty toward me on a couple of occasions.

Packed my bag and moved, finally to my own place for the last month found via a friend.

I’m fortunate. I had recourses to fall back on- savings, connections. But I thought about those who do not. What would an uneducated Philipina girl far from home with broken English and no cash or connections do in these circumstances?

Determined to hold these power-hungry, exploitative people responsible- I reached out to a few labor attorneys, my US and French universities, the US Embassy. But nothing came of it. One lawyer said two of the families had indeed violated French human rights law and could be severely punished, but ultimately the steep fees to file claims were not worth the fight, especially while I was in exams and leaving in a couple of months. I could do nothing. I abhor feeling helpless. But I was now the powerless immigrant with little recourse to fight for my rights at the whim of selfish employers.

Living in France also made me realize the importance of social workers, especially for migrant workers. I lacked but desperately needed someone to help translate documents- everything from class registration, applying for a bank account, cell phone, metro card and health insurance plan were extremely onerous. Customer service (a foreign concept in France) for these things either does not exist or is not in English (with Paris being an international city and most of the world speaking English I thought I would be fine– wrong). I could not open a bank account without first having an au pair sponsor (the first mother refused), and could not get a cell phone plan or metro card without the bank account. I was over charged a few hundred euros from different transactions I did not understand and wasted much time protesting in vain through the snailish, stuffy French bureaucratic system.

I felt alone, frustrated at the inability to do what are normally basic things, too annoying to ask a friend for help with translating documents or apartment hunting. No one likes to be bothered with negativity so I stuffed this struggle and carried on, trying to study and enjoy the occasional picnic or coffee with friends that never quite left the right taste in my mouth.

It was, quite honestly, exhausting. A battle to retain my positive nature. And I can see why Paris churns its citizens into arguably the world’s biggest whiners. It is negative- but it’s fact, not opinion. It happened. And I think it’s important to share.

Add all this to the everyday interaction with Parisians. Except for a couple of lovely girls (actually one was half Spanish), Parisians I encountered often acted fussy and curt, impersonal and instigatory, racist and whiney- and shockingly inhospitable. I’ve tried to figure out why, why the people of a culture with such beautiful art are so unpleasant. Perhaps they are angry out of hunger since they eat so little; that’s all I can come up with. But the intentional cigarette smoke in my face, purposeful shoves and sneers from adults in the metro, waiters shoving food or not serving me if I didn’t first say ‘bonjour’, repeated instructions to learn French (I did take a class), dismissal from the metro guys since I asked directions in English, professors who did not hold office hours, and repeated demands from taxi drivers to stop for coffee……sigh. People asked me why I did not like Paris– well that’s why.

This guy explains it all quite well (hilarious Parisian comedian with a famous show mocking Parisians):

But it also has to do with a person’s relationship to place. A couple of my friends love Paris. It depends on what inspires you. I went for the academics- Sciences Po is very prestigious- and because it would be fun, enjoyable, not too much culture shock (so I thought). But I also knew it wasn’t really my place.

The developing world- Eastern Europe, Latin America (mostly Central), Southeast Asia- inspires me. New York City inspires me. Dynamic places where entrepreneurship is booming and markets unsaturated. Where ideas are flowering and investment flowing. Places with more pressing human rights abuses, more issues to expose and identities more formative. Places where I have more purchasing power- where I can hire a maid and treat her nicely rather than be one myself. Indonesia offers this now and I love it. But Paris was quite the opposite. And despite living in some ‘wild’ places, I never experienced a smidget of the difficulties of Paris living. In, say, Cambodia people smile on the street, are humble and hardworking, eager to practice English. Despite all they have been through, they do not complain, rather are forward thinking. Acquiring a cell phone or bank account is effortless. It was like a playground with so many stories to share and ventures to help create. I have a few French friends living in Cambodia and Indonesia. We get along great and they feel the same as I: ‘Why do you think we live here and not there?’ they say.

We should all be in places that inspire us, whose energy speaks to us.

I’ll leave on an anecdote. Last weekend I visited an Italian friend and classmate from Sciences Po currently interning for a startup in Malaysia. We traveled with a group of grad school summer interns to Langkawi, a gorgeous tropical island. At a lovely dinner on the beach one night, the French guy in the group after his meal of about 5 French fries snapped his fingers loudly and unabashedly yelled for our Malaysian waiter.

“Are you seriously snapping?” I ask.
“What, it’s bad?” French guy says.
“Yes; it’s a very bad French habit,” says a French girl in the group (note: from Southern France = much nicer).
“One of many,” I add.
The French guy’s cheeks redden, he turns to me and so eloquently says “F- you.”
“Oh, the French,” says the group’s Dutch guy. “Didn’t think I’d have to deal with this in Asia.”

Place matters.


2 thoughts on “Labor Abuse and the Importance of Place

  1. Claire Luke, let me say that I enjoy reading you everytime and that I enjoy some of the expressions that you use because english is not my native language and i really do enjoy reading your amercian english words pounding like notes on a piano. You have a nice sense of humor too.
    I like how you tried to explain why they are so unhappy and I tried to figure it out myself while I was there too.

    In my opinion, I think Paris is not a place for kids or happy grown ups. It’s a city with a mission: this city was born in royalty and it’s still trying to preserve lost nobleness of the highclass and superior education making almost everyone live like a german shephard dog in a training school and while they’re at it you just have to watch yourself or bark in -as blend in- or whin in (sorry if my joke is a bit heavy) or just get out as you did.

    As for if I liked it or not, well yeah I enjoyed Paris because I speak French and I barked in my own Lebanese way and it worked for me haha.

    Looking forward for your next story, stay safe.


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