By SM CADMAN
***A cell phone call to his wife at home…
“Sí, I’m stuck in traffic on El Camino Real…Yeah, I plan on getting off and taking the Glendale Freeway up to Glendale Marketplace – I will get you the dress… No te preocupes, Cariño [Don’t worry, honey]. I tried to get the dress in Royal Rowena Blue – yeah it wasn’t in stock. I would have bought one from the regular sizes but then you’d be complaining all night at your sisters Quinceañera – Sí, that’s why I’m heading up there – I won’t be late, tell Papá to keep making the tamales, who knows how many borrachos [drunkards] we’re going to have to feed by the end of the night just to clear the pinche [fucking] Tequila out of them…”
José Luis darted in and out of traffic making his way to the Old Navy on Brand Blvd. He was in a panic – it was the fifteenth birthday party of his beloved niece, another way of presenting this teen girl as a woman to the world. For centuries in Mexico, this had been the defining moment for the arrival of adulthood. But in recent years, the tradition had become less useful as a marker for reaching womanhood. Education, travel and hard work had changed many Mexicans perspective on this festivity.
José Luis had recently taken over his fathers’ business: a quaint food truck selling tacos around the greater Los Angeles area. His father and uncle had arrived in America as illegal aliens – they both fought hard to obtain some sort of legitimacy just to remain in the America. His uncle was caught twice and deported back to Chiapas, and when he was finally able to return the journey to becoming an US citizen was a long and treacherous hike through bureaucratic red tape.
Three decades passed before José Luis’s father and uncle were able to live and work free and finally make this their permanent home. His father, finally at the age of fifty-two became a real American citizen. And José Luis was the first natural American born citizen in their family.
“Hi! I had a woman at the Beverly Connection Old Navy do a search for my wife – for a dress, they said they would put it on hold for us – Yeah, you have it in stock here. I’m here to pick it up. Royal Rowena Blue – it has small red flowers on it – from the maternity section. Yeah, she’s expecting our first boy in a few days now. His name? We’ve chosen to name him after my Papá and uncle, Miguel Gabriel.“
***A call from overseas…
“Yes, I’m just looking that up now – How many were supposed to be sent to Los Angeles from the procurement in Bangladesh? We wanted to have three thousand of these specific dresses, Royal Rowena Blue with small red flowers on the print. Do you want the SKU number? – Yes, we negotiated for this RMG [Ready-Made Garment] it’s been in high-demand in this area of Western America – ¡¿Qué?! [what?] Oh – sorry…When then? …Yes, I will make note of that – I will tell my boss that you will have this order filled.”
Adriana had tried to cover that last telling word that may reveal where she was calling from. She had been employed at this local call centre office handing traffic and fielding inquires from buyers, fabricators and investors from all over the world. At times, she’d be put on the phone just for order taking, shipping and receiving to locate certain clothing, shoes and accessories. She’d input the information into the computer and send the request order to America.
In Mexico City this was a very good job, she had spent almost five years in university obtaining her degree in English language studies and linguistics finally achieving her TESOL teacher certification. And although she enjoyed using her English on the telephone during online customer service chats, she still hadn’t ventured too far away from her native Mexico.
She had applied for a teaching position in the greater Los Angeles area to teach English as second language to Spanish-speaking immigrants, but before she would have the ability to teach she would need a working permit visa just to ensure her employer that she would be committed to the job and to long-term residency. When she got around to getting her working visa, she had discovered that the language school had been shut down – it hadn’t been appropriately accredited by the state of California. She had wanted to connect again with her family that had left Mexico for America – She had an extensive family network living within Los Angeles and Southern California area that she had never even met before.
“Hello, how may I help you? Sorry – Pardon? Yes, I’m Adrianna, how may I help you? Oh! Right, yes I did leave my current work number on my CV – No, it’s fine I can speak now. Yes, I did apply for that English language teaching job at the night school downtown Mexico D.F. – I see…you’ve already filled this position already? A job, where? Dhaka, Bangladesh…Yes, I do know of Dhaka – Gap does most of their garment fabricating in Bangladesh but you do realize, I’m not American, right? Am I still able to take that job?”
***A call from America…
“Yes, we take great pride in our craftsmanship of clothing – we’re located in Tejgaon Thana, yes that’s in Dhaka, Bangladesh. No, no, no! We don’t have child labor in our factory. Ninety percent of our workforce is made up of very hard-working women – seamstresses, weavers all very skilled and healthy. Paid as much as we can pay them – they work very hard you know.”
Molla ibn Malak was listening at the door to the conversation his boss was having with a man who sounded like he was a continent away. He listened intently to what he had been told before was English, being exchanged between the two businessmen. At eleven years old he wanted to go to school to learn this language, he thought that this would be a good thing to do to get away from the factory where he had been sewing and constructing fabrics into garments since he was eight years old.
His hands were stained a deep purplish indigo hue from handling raw material that had not yet been treated to set the dye into the fabric. His boss looked over and saw him standing at the door; he scurried back to his machine on the line and began piecing together the pattern of pre-fab before he began. He looked at the muslin dress model hanging on the wall directly in front of his machine, written above the garment was the monthly quota in Bengali that needed to be met.
He was getting better at deciphering the written characters each day, he also hoped he would be able to read some of the newspapers he found laying tattered and discarded on the streets of Dhaka. He got up and walked over to the garment and studied the stitching – What he couldn’t figure out about this garment was, why only the centre of the dress ballooned out into a rounded belly. He had been told that North Americans and Europeans were bigger than the people of South Asia, but this almost seemed like a joke to him. Nevertheless, he sat down and knew this dress would be valuable for some woman, somewhere.
After several painful hours of work had passed, he watched as part of the dress move down the line until it was fully constructed. The final worker hung it on the rack beside the many other identical dresses that had been sewn by many women and children in the factory that day. He nodded to his floor boss who nodded back and he knew it would be okay to make a quick stop outside to pee.
The toilets had not been working within the factory building for two years now; tiles from the ceiling made of asbestos and old tungsten light bulbs would often break off and fall upon the workers. When he got outside and moved a small distance down the street to urinate, he heard the largest successive noise he had ever heard in his short life – the factory had fallen in upon itself.
“Oh my god, do you work in there? Are you okay?! I’m Adriana. I’m sorry I don’t speak Bengali – Do you speak English or Spanish? Dumb question, right? Come with me to the English Language Centre down the street.”
Molla took this woman’s hand and smiled at her and although he was very frightened something was strangely familiar about her. Shaken, he walked down to the ESL centre with Adriana. When she walked through the door a small black rotary dial telephone on her desk started ringing, she quickly answered it.
As Molla heard the sirens and screaming in the street coming from every direction, he then heard something different coming from Adriana’s call, curious he began to listen closer. This didn’t sound like the language that she had spoken to him with on the street, although it did sound vaguely similar.
“Primo [cousin], sorry, I can’t talk! – Something awful just happened here – José Luis, a factory just collapsed or was blown up or something! Yes, I’m okay, I think I found one of the child workers from this garment factory down the street – No he’s not hurt. Thank god! Yes, tell them I will call back as soon as possible – Yes, I will be there later this month for Estacia’s Quinceañera, all my love. Hasta pronto! [See you soon!]”
Dhaka, Bangladesh (wikivoyage.org)
From CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation):
2013 Savar building collapse (wikipedia.org)
Smile, Work and Die (truthdig.com)
Gap, Old Navy, and the Living Hell of a Bangladeshi Sweatshop (commondreams.org)
One Fashion Addict Confronts Bangladesh’s Factories (refinery29.com)
How to Put a Stop to Sweatshop Abuse (nakedcapitalism.com)
Bangladesh Factory Under Scrutiny (CBC.ca)
The dark underworld of Bangladesh RMG (Ready Made Garments) (thedailystar.net)
Child labour falls by a third to 168 million, says ILO (theguardian.com)