Episode 498: The Last T-Shirt In Colombia : Planet Money In the latest installment of our T-shirt series, we move from Bangladesh to Colombia — and we see an entirely different world.
NPR logo

Episode 498: The Last T-Shirt In Colombia

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/246776421/246823528" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Episode 498: The Last T-Shirt In Colombia

Episode 498: The Last T-Shirt In Colombia

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/246776421/246823528" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ZOE CHACE, HOST:

Planet Money is telling you the story of a T-shirt. To do it, we actually had a bunch of T-shirts made, and we went to all the places that our T-shirt went. So let's review - our shirt was born in a cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BOWEN FLOWERS: We're standing on one of my farms we call Omega.

CHACE: We followed the cotton to Indonesia where it was made into yarn in this very fancy, very clean room.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: There is no human who touches this at all.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No, they are not touching here. Why should you touch the product by hand? You are destroying the product.

CHACE: The yarn gets made into fabric, fabric gets sent to Bangladesh, where two sisters sew it into T-shirts. Shumi and Minu - we met those sisters on the last show, and that's where we left our story. The next stop, Marianne.

MARIANNE MCCUNE, HOST:

Our next stop is in a totally different place. It's in Medellin, Colombia. That's where I went.

LINA MARIA TASCON: Hola, muchachas.

MCCUNE: This is Lina Maria Tascon, who stitched the women's T-shirt together. And she has a message to all of you who eventually pull this shirt on.

TASCON: (Speaking Spanish, laughter).

MCCUNE: "Hi, ladies," she's saying. "I hope you wear this shirt with a lot of pleasure because we put a lot of sweat, a lot of sacrifice into this shirt" - and a lot of love, of course. Zoe, all those stories that we've been telling about T-shirts, all those stories are about the men's shirt. This is the other half of the story. It's the story of the women's T-shirt, and it happens right here in Colombia.

CHACE: So we've got women in Bangladesh sewing the men's T-shirt and women in Colombia sewing the women's T-shirt, who, as far as we could tell, were doing exactly the same thing, taking pieces of fabric and sewing them together. In Bangladesh, two hands line up the front and back of a shirt and go like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING SEWING MACHINE)

MCCUNE: And in Colombia, two hands will do the same thing, push this pink fabric under the needle of a sewing machine in order to put together the V-neck women's T-shirt.

CHACE: But, Marianne, the women that I met in Bangladesh, they made just about $3 a day for that work.

MCCUNE: Yeah. In Colombia, the women making the Planet Money T-shirt make more than four times that, about $13 a day. And inside the factory, there's a subsidized restaurant with a choice of two healthy entrees and you can even get your fruit juice with added sugar or without. And there's a mandatory stretch break where they put on music and tell everybody to stand up and stretch their necks and their shoulders and their knees.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

CHACE: I saw nothing like that in Bangladesh. Shumi and Minu, the sisters that we profiled in Bangladesh, they don't buy lunches at a cafeteria. They bring their lunches every day. They pack them in these little tins. It's the same meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I did not see any stretching breaks.

MCCUNE: And, Zoe, everything that you've already told us about how workers in Bangladesh live, what their life at home is like, it's so different from what I saw in Colombia.

CHACE: Yeah, tell me Colombia.

MCCUNE: OK. In Colombia, Noreli Morales, for example, she lives with her mom and her daughter in an apartment that's - it's not fancy, but it has a bed for her mom, a bed for her and her daughter. It's got a full kitchen, full bathroom. And she's able to send her 3-year-old daughter to day care while she's at work. The night I visited, Mariana (ph) snuggled in her mom's lap and showed her where a little boy from day care bit her.

MARIANA: (Speaking Spanish).

NORELI MORALES: Si.

MARIANA: (Speaking Spanish).

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: He bit her, she says, so she bit him back. Morales tells her, you can't do that.

MARIANA: (Speaking Spanish).

MORALES: (Laughter, speaking Spanish).

CHACE: That's kind of awesome. I was a biter myself, actually, at day care. But when I hear this story and I think day care - day care, that is such a luxury in Bangladesh. Minu, one of the workers we profiled in our last show, she could never afford that. Her daughter lives hours away from her with her parents. Also, chair - you said she sat in a chair, right?

MCCUNE: Yeah.

CHACE: Minu does not have a chair to sit in. There's also no room for a chair in her one-room apartment, the apartment that she shares with two other people, her sister and her husband.

MCCUNE: Wow. So you have these two factories in two countries doing basically the same thing, making T-shirts. But the lives these women lead at home and at work are so, so different. The two countries represent the sort of opposite ends of the spectrum that T-shirt-making countries are on. And for workers, it's clear which end is better. But for someone looking to have a lot of T-shirts made, it's a more complicated question.

CHACE: There are two things that a T-shirt maker is always thinking about when trying to figure out where to get their shirts made - how much it costs to be there and how good the place is at making T-shirts. Bangladesh is really cheap. What Colombia has - Colombia is really good.

MCCUNE: So we've seen what it looks like to be on the low-cost end of the spectrum - Bangladesh. Today, I want to take you to the faster, sleeker and more expensive side of the spectrum.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHAKIRA SONG, "PIES DESCALZOS, SUENOS BLANCOS")

MCCUNE: Hello and welcome to Planet Money. I'm Marianne McCune.

CHACE: And I am Zoe Chace. We move from Bangladesh to what Bangladesh dreams to be - Colombia, a better-paid workforce with better skills and a nice cafeteria. But Bangladesh, take note - Colombia is kind of a cautionary tale about T-shirt making.

MCCUNE: This is a story about what happens to T-shirt makers in a country where life is comparatively good and it's getting better all the time. And as it turns out, that kind of success can actually hurt you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIES DESCALZOS, SUENOS BLANCOS")

SHAKIRA: (Singing in Spanish).

MCCUNE: OK, so to give you an idea of the dream of a factory I visited - Zoe, how many T-shirts can they make in Bangladesh in one hour?

CHACE: These numbers are approximate, but take one sewing line for our T-shirt, 32 people - 80 T-shirts per hour.

MCCUNE: In Colombia, one sewing line, eight people, 140 T-shirts per hour. Boom. This difference seems huge. So we should note, these are not exactly parallel sewing lines. In Bangladesh, a few more things happen on the 32-person line than on the eight-person Colombia line.

CHACE: But still, a fraction of the people making many more shirts in a day.

MCCUNE: And that sounds great to a T-shirt company. It sounded good to Jockey, the company that helped us make our shirts when they started having shirts made at these factories in Colombia eight years ago. There were a lot of pluses, actually - a free trade agreement allowed Colombian products to come into the U.S. tax free, unlike Bangladeshi products. Plus, the company that runs these factories, it's called Crystal. They don't just cut and sew the T-shirts. They do the whole thing. I mean, from spinning the cotton into yarn to delivering the finished shirt.

So Jockey's not stuck shipping cotton to one country, then yarn to another and so on. It all happens here at Crystal, which makes this company even more efficient. Jockey's director of manufacturing, Bill Frazier, came with me on a tour of Crystal's factories.

BILL FRAZIER: I think you're going to be amazed of the thought that really goes into making underwear. I think you're going to be overwhelmed by it.

MCCUNE: Yeah, for two days, my head is spinning with all this technology - machines that twist, knit, dye and cut. Eventually, Isabelle Rijos (ph), a manager at Crystal, walks us to the far end of the light and spacious sewing factory where eight women are stitching together the fronts, backs, necks and sleeves of our smooth, pink cotton.

ISABELLE RIJOS: This is your T-shirt.

MCCUNE: Rijos picked up a little white strip that will line the back of the T-shirt's neck.

It says Planet Money, Planet Money, Planet Money.

RIJOS: What is Planet Money?

MCCUNE: Planet Money is the name of our show.

RIJOS: Oh, OK, the show on the radio.

MCCUNE: Yes, exactly.

RIJOS: OK, OK.

MCCUNE: When you haven't spent much time in factories, it's kind of hard to evaluate the efficiency of the one you're in. But Bill Frazier, the Jockey guy who was with us, he goes to factories all over the world nonstop. And he says it's all about how fast workers can line up two pieces of fabric and stick them under the needle.

FRAZIER: I don't think people really think that sewing operators are skilled. But they're highly skilled with their hand movements, and that's where they gain their efficiency.

MCCUNE: Bill says he can measure their efficiency by just listening to the length of the silence between the seams.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING SEWING MACHINE)

MCCUNE: Bills says this factory's got a very efficient buzz. And that is far from an accident. There are some serious incentives here to be productive. You can get a bonus for working hard - I mean, working fast. For every project the Jockey team works on, like our shirt, the bosses will set a goal like, OK, make 1,700 of these shirts a day and you'll get a bonus on pay day. To reach that productivity goal, the women told me everyone has to work together like one well-oiled machine.

No one can dilly dally, no one can make mistakes because one person can blow it for everyone. And there's money on the line, so it can be stressful.

TASCON: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: Even though our shirts look pretty simple, Lina Maria Tascon told me, this batch, our order, was a struggle from the very first to the last.

TASCON: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: They wanted it to be 100 percent excelente, she says, not a single mistake. But it was a new model for the women. And at first, they couldn't make it come out quite right. The quality check people kept sending it back, which could mean no bonus. Tascon says they argued.

TASCON: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: She said, "the women who worked extra fast were mad at the slower ones. Like, why are you going to the bathroom? It's just an excuse for a break."

TASCON: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: The day I visited the factory in Colombia, all eight women stayed from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. in order to get the shirts done in time. By the time Noreli Morales got home to her 3-year-old, the one who bit back, she looked totally exhausted. Yeah, sure, she says, she wishes she had a job that wasn't so hard. She wishes she had stayed in school longer so she could get a job with better hours and pay.

But Noreli started sewing and stopped school because she and her family needed money. Now she's kind of stuck. It's hard to get a better job unless she goes back to school. And with this schedule and a kid, there's no time for that.

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: "Sometimes, sure," she tells me, "you do just want to leave everything and go, I don't know, somewhere." But then while she was sitting there watching her daughter play with her cousins, she said, then you remember that there are people worse off than you are. She told me, I'm not as bad off as some people.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: And it's true. The good news is life making T-shirts in Colombia is better than it is elsewhere. Noreli lives better than those sisters in Bangladesh. But there's a flip side to her good fortune, a very bleak flip side.

LUIS RESTREPO: There is a saying that is going to sound horrible. But our industry follows poverty.

MCCUNE: Our industry follows poverty. Luis Restrepo is Morales' boss's boss's boss's boss or something like that. He's the CEO of all the factories we visited here.

RESTREPO: Our industry is like on roller skates. First it was Latin America. Then it moved to China. Now China is becoming more expensive. It moved to Bangladesh or moved to Vietnam. And it goes like this.

MCCUNE: Rolling toward the lowest-paid workers. What that means is that the better off Colombia gets, the fewer global apparel companies want to manufacture here. Manufacturers want efficiency, but they also don't want to spend a lot on labor. With the Colombian peso extraordinarily strong against the dollar, the cost of labor here is many times what it costs in a place like Bangladesh.

So even with that trade deal that lets Colombian T-shirts in for free, even with some of the most efficient garment workers and machines in the world, Colombian companies cannot keep costs low enough. They have to compete on something other than price - faster turnaround, more flexibility, better technology and quality, higher-end products than a simple T-shirt. Those are some of the strategies that the company making our T-shirt is trying. One of their big selling points is full service from the cotton to the clothes and how quickly they can respond to the whims of consumers.

RESTREPO: From design to the store in 30 days for a collection.

MCCUNE: If you can't offer foreign companies something that no one else can, making clothes for the global market will turn your hair gray because that breakup call, Restrepo says, where the client tells you he's found a cheaper option, it can come at any moment.

RESTREPO: You are one phone call away.

MCCUNE: Has the past decade been very hard for Crystal?

RESTREPO: I wouldn't say hard. It was challenging.

MCCUNE: With the competition from Asia, plus a political dispute with Venezuela that hit Colombian exporters hard.

Have you had to reduce the number of employees?

RESTREPO: About 10 percent.

MCCUNE: He had to cut workers because the rest of the world no longer wanted to pay for them. The rest of the world can find those same types of workers cheaper in other places.

TASCON: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: Sometimes when she's at the factory and Lina Maria Tascon's hands are flying around the sewing machine, her head is far away. She'll put in ear buds and listen to romantic salsa to drown out her worries, that increasingly nasty pain in her shoulder or the extra room she needs at home so her dad can move in. And here's a really bad one - there's this rumor making its way around the factory that after eight years of manufacturing here, Jockey is going to make that breakup call and pull out of Colombia.

TASCON: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: People on her team are really stressed about it, she says. She's worried that if Crystal is going to have to let some garment workers go, no way is it going to be the people who work on the other stuff, the other clothes this factory produces. It's going to be the people who've been cranking out the Jockey T-shirts day in and day out. Those are the ones who are going to get cut.

So when I got back to the U.S., this was the first thing I wanted to know. We called up Marion Smith. He's a vice president from Jockey. And I told him there's this rumor going around, there's gossip on the factory floor, that Jockey is pulling out of Colombia by the end of the year. Is that right?

MARION SMITH: Actually, that's close to being right is February, but yes.

MCCUNE: Jockey is leaving in February. The gossip on the factory floor, it really was true. And I'm thinking I don't want to be the one to tell Lina Maria she was right. Marion Smith at Jockey, he's the sourcing guru who decided to put a stop to orders from Crystal, he says he feels terrible, too.

SMITH: The reason I was taking a deep sigh is because it was very painful for me. We both like each other a lot. They've got great principles. They have great capabilities.

MCCUNE: The thing is, Smith told us, Colombia was a great place to source from when he started out.

SMITH: But since then, wages continue to go up, costs continue to go up. The difference between everyone else in the sourcing mix in the world is becoming bigger and bigger and bigger. And that's because the economy of Colombia is growing.

MCCUNE: Compared to a decade ago, Columbia's real GDP is up by about 50 percent. Oil and coal exports are up. Foreign investors are coming and the peso is strong. In other words, things are going great for the country. But for manufacturers like Crystal, all that success makes it harder to compete in the global market. Smith told us that by the time Jockey pulled out, it was pretty much the only American company importing underwear from Colombia. And he said next year after moving the production to four or five other countries, Jockey will be spending a lot less per T-shirt.

SMITH: As a percent, 20 to 30 percent.

MCCUNE: Twenty to 30 percent less.

SMITH: Yes.

MCCUNE: Think about it this way, if you're getting a T-shirt for, say, $3 and you can get it for $2 somewhere else, that is 30 percent less. And that is a huge difference. Jockey orders millions of T-shirts. That is millions of dollars.

CHACE: Marianne, hi, it's Zoe again. I just want to jump in here and say this was really big news to everyone at Planet Money when you told us that the rumors were true. Jockey is leaving Colombia. We never imagined that in watching the T-shirt industry for just one year, we'd actually see the roller skates of the global economy skate away from an entire country just weeks after we were there.

MCCUNE: Yeah, the decision seemed really sudden to me, obviously, because I'd just shown up on the scene there.

CHACE: And I couldn't help thinking if this happened in Bangladesh, if Jackie and a bunch of American companies left, it would be so devastating there. It could crush the entire economy. The garment industry, the making clothes industry, it's pretty much the only industry in Bangladesh at the moment. But that's not the situation in Colombia.

MCCUNE: No. Colombia is a diverse economy, and Crystal, the Colombian manufacturer, they have been preparing for this kind of thing. They won't close their doors with this. I mean, Jockey is a very important client, and they're trying to negotiate some new deal with them. But Crystal has other international clients, and it's pushing this fashion quick-response thing, you know, where they can do smaller orders of higher-end stuff really fast to hit the stores right when consumers are looking for them. They even design for foreign companies.

But most importantly, Crystal's CEO says he's turning the company's focus away from manufacturing for foreign companies and toward producing its own successful clothing brands. That way they'll be less dependent on the whims of the Jockeys of the world.

RESTREPO: We decided that we want to control our own destiny.

MCCUNE: And they've already opened 160 of their own stores across Latin America, and they have plans for more. So the factory jobs he's already lost, Luis Restrepo says he's replacing those with retail jobs. And that mirrors the path of Colombia's overall economy. As the country grows, factory jobs are losing importance and service jobs are getting to be a bigger part of the economy.

CHACE: This situation that you're describing in Colombia is the sort of optimistic version of the story that you hear people hoping for in a place like Bangladesh. Like, the factories that are making low-cost clothes could be designing the clothes themselves in a few decades. And the workers at those factories will have design skills and enough money to buy the clothes themselves. But a transition like this into a different kind of economy is obviously very painful for the people who get squeezed out of the only jobs they know how to do or the only jobs they can get sewing the clothes that we all wear in this case. I mean, Noreli Morales, the one with the 3-year-old biter, if she or Lina Maria can't sew clothes, what's going to go down? What will they do?

MCCUNE: Well, they would love to move into the service sector. That's exactly the kind of thing the workers I met dream of. They want to start their own businesses. One woman I met already bakes desserts when she has enough energy after work and sells them to her colleagues. And she really wants to start a business doing facials. She has been buying, one-by-one, this brand of creams and lotions and cleaners, you know, spa products that she really loves. And she showed them to me in a mostly empty cupboard in her bedroom.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: "This is her stash of dreams," she says. And Lina Maria Tascon, she has a jewelry business on the side. She buys it. She sells it to friends with a markup and then she puts the money she makes back to work buying more jewelry to sell.

If Lina Maria does end up losing her job, yes, it will be hard for her to get another one or to really start up her own business. She dropped out of school at 13 to have a baby. Sewing is what she knows. But you know what? Her son is in college studying graphic design. He's even working a little on the side, and maybe by the time he's graduated there will be more jobs for designers at the clothing factory. Maybe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIES DESCALZOS, SUENOS BLANCOS")

SHAKIRA: (Singing in Spanish).

MCCUNE: Next week, Planet Money's own David Kestenbaum will be following the containership that brought the women's T-shirts back to the U.S. I actually got to see our shirts loaded into the container, a blue one that looks pretty much like every other container. And I got worried that when it was placed alongside the thousands of other big blue containers to be loaded on to a ship that David would have no way to find it. I wanted to make it really easy for him, so I defaced our container, the one with the Planet Money T-shirts, with lipstick graffiti.

CHACE: Marianne, you sent the team a picture of the lipstick on the container. It was perfect.

MCCUNE: I wrote Planet Money T-shirts with a big arrow pointing toward the opening of the container. The guy who monitored the whole packing operation via security camera, he got a really big kick out of this. And he was narrating every word I wrote through this walkie-talkie thing on somebody's belt.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Through walkie-talkie) Planet Money...

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Through walkie-talkie) Planet Money...

MCCUNE: So there you go, Kestenbaum. Thank me when you find it.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: There it is. Yeah, M-O-N - that's it. It's still there. Marianne McCune, your lipstick held up.

CHACE: As always, let us know what you thought of the show today. You can send your thoughts via Facebook, Twitter or email us - planetmoney@npr.org.

MCCUNE: You can see a beautiful little movie about Doris Restrepo, the one who wants to run her own spa, on our website. And there is tons more information about the travels of our T-shirt there. Thank you so much to the women in Colombia who not only sewed our shirts with their expert hands but also invited us into their homes to talk and to the executives at Crystal who were incredibly gracious and open hosts. And finally, Colombian journalist and fixer Alejandra de Vengoechea was a huge help on this story. I'm Marianne McCune.

CHACE: And I'm Zoe Chace. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIES DESCALZOS, SUENOS BLANCOS")

SHAKIRA: (Singing in Spanish)...

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.