I managed to make my way into a garment factory in Vietnam and this is what I found…
As you would expect, I was pretty shocked. I’ve heard about factories like this and seen images, but nothing prepared me for entering the machine that feeds our consumption – big brand garments being pieced together at an alarming rate in poor conditions.
Even though I don’t buy from the brands I witnessed being made, I still felt an unbearable wave of guilt just being associated with the culture that feeds this industry.
I won’t mention specific brand names here… but I will say that the four big name brands I saw being produced dominate suburban shopping malls and outlets in the states. With fall around the corner, this factory was pumping out the garments we will soon see in stores this time of year: winter puffy coats, flannels, pants, and children’s wear.
Here is a look behind the scenes…
Entering The Machine
The first thing that struck me was the monotonous hum of a thousand sewing machines and the whistle of compressed air (used to clear loose threads from garments). The warehouse resembled a thriving bee hive, buzzing with activity. Rows of sewing machines stretched as far as I could see and piles of garments were spilling into the walkway.
I had entered a miniature city – pumping out piece after piece of low-quality textile. My stomach dropped a bit as I walked down the middle of the warehouse but I had no one to share my amazement with. Only a handful of laborers looked up, shocked to see a foreigner inside the factory, while the rest remained hard at work.
After a few minutes I overcame my initial shock and took it upon myself to tour the peripherals of the factory. My self-guided tour shed light on each piece of the puzzle, revealing the process by which fabric becomes garment.
A walk though garment production:
As with all areas of production in this factory, the first step of garment production is part man part machine. I was unofficially informed that the fabric is sourced from China, but was not able to confirm this (fabric production and sourcing is on my list of things to uncover).
The Production Line
The production line is the belly of the beast, occupying the majority of the warehouse and humming with the sound of a thousand sewing machines. This is what comes to mind when you think of a garment factory and the mental image I had before this visit was unfortunately accurate. Lines of tightly packed sewing machines were operated by seamstresses sweating as they worked to keep up with what I imagine to be an unsustainable pace.
Without having any prior knowledge of garment production I could immediately tell this is where the pace of production was set. The sense of urgency was palpable and the atmosphere was serious, likely maintained by the managers that paced the isles. Most laborers here didn’t even turn their head to notice the foreigner curiously inspecting operations and snapping photos.
Needless to say, this part of the factory weighed heavy on my mind and remains the image that lingers the most from this experience.
Washing & Drying
The next phase of production was about forty paces away, in its own building. The washing and drying stations were clean, relatively quiet, and spacious. Workers here had time to relax between loads and were happy to show me around the industrial machinery.
Ironing, Tagging, & Packaging
After the garments have been washed and dried it’s back to warehouse where they are ironed, tagged, and packaged. Workers here are on their feet all day, working around a table, but do seem to enjoy slightly more socializing than the production line workers.
If there is a quality test such as testing shirts to make sure the color doesn’t fade, that will be done at this stage.
Like clockwork, the entire factory stops for lunch at the same time and everyone piles into the cafeteria for a factory-provided meal prepared on site. I was surprised to find the break lasted a full hour, but was not reassured this is standard procedure at all Vietnamese factories.
The lunch break reminded me a bit of middle school. Everyone is released at once, the cafeteria offers a barely eatable meal, and no one can leave campus. Then, after eating, everyone breaks out into their social circles in the lunch area and outside the warehouse where they spend the remainder of their break socializing.
I was informed through an interview that workers have the freedom to get up and use the restroom as they please. This is a shot of the men’s restroom – a urinal trough and a few stalls.
At the end of the work day the sewing machine buzz was replaced with the chatter of hundreds of workers as they lined up single file to exit the warehouse. Everyone was quickly searched before exiting (presumably to check for any stolen merchandise). After clocking out via the electric fingerprint machine, workers were free to go.
The Parking Lot
About factory conditions in Vietnam
It’s hot. We are in Vietnam, in the summer. Temperatures in Vietnam this time of year average about 85 degrees F (30 Celsius) and humidity hovers around 80%. This factory did not have air conditioning, but they did have several fans which kept temperatures slightly bearable.
This is average. This factory adheres to international standards for working conditions and environmental regulations. While I don’t have other experiences to compare this to yet, my interview with a professional inspector confirmed that this factory is representative of others in the area. I will provide updates to this post as I visit more garment factories.
Pay is low. The average wage for factory workers in Vietnam is less than $1 per hour. Based on my interview with a previous factory worker (now inspection professional), factory workers in Vietnam can make around $5 per day. This is drastically lower than salaries in the US or Europe, but cost of living in Vietnam is also much lower. To put this pay in perspective, here are a few reference points:
- A bowl of pho (traditional Vietnamese soup) is +/- $2.00
- A Vietnamese sandwich is about $1.00
- A Vietnamese beer is about $1.00
Regardless of how you cut it, it’s a depressingly low wage. With the cost of production for many of these garments under $2.00 and a retail price of over $25.00, I have to imagine there is room for higher wages and better conditions these workers.
Any doubts I had about reducing my consumption and shopping ethically have been thoroughly squashed by this experience. I hope my investigation can provide you with some insight and I’d love to hear your story if you’ve had a similar experience.