If the sweatshop scandals of the 1990s taught major corporate brands like Nike and Walmart anything, it's that Americans don't like their garments made in abusive conditions by child laborers overseas.
The overseas labor reforms imposed by corporations in the 2000s then taught brands that Americans are, for the most part, comfortable with their halter tops and sneakers being made by foreign workers making poverty wages as long as they are given the minimum perk of regular bathroom breaks.
In the 2000s, brands like the GAP, Victoria's Secret, H&M, Calvin Klein, Ann Taylor, and Spanx flocked to Sri Lanka, a country capable and willing to enforce bare bones labor laws. Beyonce's new Ivy Park line followed suit, setting up shop in Katunayake, Sri Lanka, in 2015.
Last week, the Sun on Sunday published interviews with some Ivy Park factory workers who described working for nine hours a day and living in cramped boarding houses away from their rural villages, all to sew $165 leggings meant to, in Beyonce's words, "empower" women.
The company that employs the Ivy Park factory workers is MAS Holdings, a $1.6 billion conglomerate that owns 48 manufacturing sites in 15 different countries, headquartered in Sri Lanka.
One of MAS Holdings' most elite clients is Lululemon. In 2013, the company posted a highly-produced video on YouTube where they visit a MAS Holdings factory in Sri Lanka that manufactures their $110 yoga pants and $54 sports bras. Driving through the colorful crowded streets, there is lush greenery, and shots of kittens playing. Inside the impeccably clean factory, women smile over sewing machines, and in subtitled interviews, talk about how wonderful their jobs are. One woman says, "I get to hear everyone's ideas and spend my day happily with everyone."
Another adds, "It's like we receive a new life each morning."
Not likely, says Elizabeth Cline, who spent time in overseas factories researching her book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. "Garment work is pretty much the same the world over nowadays, especially in factories making cheap, low-skilled, throwaway fashion like the Ivy Park line," Cline says. "The days are very long, unpaid overtime is standard, and each worker has a single task—sewing a side seam on a pair of track pants for example and workers are typically paid by the piece. They do that over and over again until all the track pants are sewn. It's boring and brutal. If it paid well or involved actual craftsmanship, it'd be a different story. But it pays terribly and this stuff is made to be instant garbage."
Most of the workers are women.
"They are seen as more docile and easier to control by factory management," says Cline. "And they have far fewer economic alternatives in poor countries than men do. Big brands like to say they're offering poor women economic opportunities, but what they're really doing is taking advantage of women's disempowerment."
Big brands like to say they're offering poor women economic opportunities, but what they're really doing is taking advantage of women's disempowerment.
A representative from Ivy Park told Broadly in a statement that the company has a "rigorous ethical trading programme" and " are proud of our sustained efforts in terms of factory inspections and audits, and our teams worldwide work very closely with our suppliers and their factories to ensure compliance. We expect our suppliers to meet our code of conduct and we support them in achieving these requirements.
But Cline says that, while major brands do in fact inspect their factories, it's often for show. "Brands hire people to walk through, check off boxes, and they can tell their consumers and shareholders that everything is OK," she says. But inspections don't necessarily lead to any meaningful change. "Factories can act one way in front of a brand and another way as soon as the brand rep leaves."
Brands are not legally responsible for anything that happens in their factories overseas and they are far removed. Many US brands use companies that act as sort of a broker or middleman, connecting them with cheap manufacturers, bidding to get the most bang for their buck. One such company, Li & Fung based in Hong Kong, has been connected to multiple labor violations and has contributed to some of the most horrific tragedies in factories overseas.
According to the New York Times, Li & Fung set up a Bangladeshi manufacturing factory for Kohl's where 29 people died in a fire in 2010. In 2011, more than 50 workers who made clothes for Tommy Hilfiger were injured and two were killed in an explosion and subsequent stampede at a factory brokered by Li & Fung.
"It's entirely legal to pay people poverty wages in many parts of the world," says Cline. "So it's possible to work within the confines of the law sometimes and yet be doing something morally reprehensible."