'Our Industry Follows Poverty': Success Threatens A T-Shirt Business : Planet Money Colombia's economy has been growing, and wages have been rising. That's good for the country as a whole, but it may wind up driving away the T-shirt industry.

'Our Industry Follows Poverty': Success Threatens A T-Shirt Business

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

All this week, NPR's Planet Money team is telling the story of a T-shirt. It's a shirt they commissioned and followed its making from beginning to end. Yesterday, we joined them in Bangladesh where the Planet Money men's was made. Today, we go to Colombia, that's where the women's shirt was manufactured. Workers in Colombia are paid more than four times what workers in Bangladesh earn for stitching a T-shirt together.

And as Marianne McCune reports, that is good for garment workers and bad for Colombia's T-shirt industry.

MARIANNE MCCUNE, BYLINE: The women's T-shirt is made from exceptionally soft cotton knit fabric. It's a deep V-neck, tailored down the sides. And when Planet Money's fans finally pull it on, the single mom who stitched on the neck has this message.

LINA MARIA TASCON: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: Hi ladies, she says with a twinkle.

TASCON: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: I hope you wear this shirt with a lot of pleasure because we put a lot of sweat into it.


MCCUNE: And we also put in a lot of love, of course.

TASCON: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: Lina Maria Tascon works in Colombia's fashion capital, Medellin, where she and the women she sews with are probably some of the fastest in the world. That's just one reason why Jockey - the company that helped us make our shirts - chose Colombia for this batch. There's also a free trade agreement, which means Jockey doesn't pay any taxes on the clothes it buys here. And the Colombian company Jockey orders from, Crystal, is especially fast and agile. That's because they do everything in-house, every complex step from spinning raw cotton into yarn to delivering finished T-shirts.

Jockey's director of manufacturing Bill Frazier came with us on a two-day tour of all the factories that made our T-shirt.

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.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: One star from the (unintelligible) warehouse.

MCCUNE: For two days my head spins at the technology. Machines that twist cotton into yarn...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And look at here.

MCCUNE: ...knit it into cloth...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Single knit, double knit.

MCCUNE: ...dye it, cut it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The machine has a special pocket.


MCCUNE: Oh, like a cookie cutter.

Eventually, we head to the far end of the light and spacious sewing factory.

I see it. I see the pink.


MCCUNE: Here eight women are stitching together the fronts, backs, necks and sleeves of our smooth pink cotton.

ISABEL RIOS: This is your T-shirt.

MCCUNE: Isabel Rios, a manager here, 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.

RIOS: What is Planet Money?

MCCUNE: Planet Money is the name of our show.

RIOS: Ah. OK, the show in the radio.



MCCUNE: If you're a sewing machine operator, this is the kind of place you want to work. Crystal pays for health insurance, there's a subsidized restaurant on campus, ceiling fans keep things cool, overtime is paid but it's optional - not required - and at least once a shift, music blares over a loudspeaker, to make everyone stand and stretch for a few minutes.

Of course, this is still a minimum wage job - about $13 a day - and it's still tough, repetitive manual labor.

While we peered over her shoulder, Lina Maria Tascon - the single mom who said she put sweat and love into these shirts - she was madly stitching on one slender neck after another.


MCCUNE: This factory values speed enough to pay for it. The faster Tascon and her team work, the more money they can make. Their bosses give them productivity goals like, say, make 1,700 of these T-shirts a day and you'll get a bonus on payday. What that means is no one can dilly-dally or make mistakes, because one person can blow it for everyone.

FRAZIER: I don't think people really think that sewing operators are skilled.

MCCUNE: Bill Frazier, Jockey's director of manufacturing.

FRAZIER: But they're highly skilled with their hand movements. And that's where they gain their efficiency.


MCCUNE: He says he's been in so many factories he can measure that efficiency just by listening to the length of the silence between seams.


MCCUNE: Can the workers in one factory, can they be twice as fast as the workers in another factory?


MCCUNE: You've seen that.


MCCUNE: He says this factory has got a very efficient buzz.

How horrible must it be to do your work with all these bosses - everyone behind you, right?

FRAZIER: It's bad. They're hating you right now.

TASCON: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: Tascon says this batch of shirts - our order - was a struggle from the very first to the last.

TASCON: (Foreign language spoken)

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: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: The women who worked extra fast were mad at the slower ones, like: Why are you going to the bathroom, just an excuse for a break?


FRAZIER: The day we visited, all eight women stayed from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., in order to get the shirts done in time. It was good and dark by the time Noreli Morales got home to the barebones apartment she shares with her mom and three-year-old daughter.


MCCUNE: Mariana crawled as fast as she could into her mom's lap to snuggle. And then to tell her where a boy bit her at daycare.

MARIANA: (Foreign language spoken)

(Foreign language spoken)

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

MARIANA: (Foreign language spoken)


MORALES: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: Morales says, sure, she regrets not staying in school long enough to get a job that pays more for less taxing work. She started sewing because she and her family needed money. Now she's kind of stuck. Hard to get a better job unless she goes to school and, with this schedule and a kid, there's no time for that.

MORALES: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: She tells me: Sometimes you want to leave everything and go.

MORALES: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: I don't know, somewhere. But then you remember that there are people worse off than you. She says, I'm not as bad off as some people.

MARIANA: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: And it's true. Noreli Morales' life is better than for your average garment worker in, say, Bangladesh where some start work at 14, where workers share small rooms with concrete floors and no running water, a gas burner in the hall, and where hastily constructed factories catch fire or collapse.

Some of the Bangladeshi women who stitched the men's T-shirt together don't even have a chair, like the one Morales cuddles her daughter in, much less daycare. But there's a flip side to Morales' relative good fortune: Her job may be in jeopardy.

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 of 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.


MCCUNE: What that means is that the better off Colombia gets, the less sense it makes for global apparel companies to manufacture here. 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 free trade deal, even with some of the most efficient garment workers and machines in the world, Colombia can no longer keep costs low enough. They have to offer something other than the lowest price, like speed or quality, or innovative and higher end products.

Crystal's big selling point is the full service. They can turn your raw cotton into clothes and even design them for you - and fast.

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

MCCUNE: If you can't offer foreign companies something no one else can, making clothes for the global market will turn your hair gray. Because that break up 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. So that's no good.

MCCUNE: Partly because of increased competition from Asia over the past decade, Restrepo says he's had to cut his staff. He cut it by 10 percent.


MCCUNE: Sometimes at the factory, while 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, 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.

TASCON: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: People on our team are really stressed about it, she says.

TASCON: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: The theory is, she says, if someone's going to get laid off, it's going to be the people who have been cranking out Jockey T-shirts, of course. That rumor that Jockey was leaving at the end of the year, we heard it elsewhere too. So, when I got back to the U.S. and had Jockey on the phone, it was the first thing I wanted to know. There's this rumor going around that Jockey's pulling out of Colombia by the end of the year. Is that right?

MARION SMITH: I said it's close to being right. It's February, but, yes.

MCCUNE: The gossip on the factory floor, it was true. Marion Smith, the Jockey sourcing guru, he was the one who decided to put a stop to orders from Crystal.

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 it's because the economy of Colombia is growing.

MCCUNE: Compared to a decade ago, Colombia's real GDP is up by about 50 percent. Oil and coal exports are up, foreign investors are coming and the peso is strong. But for manufacturers like Crystal, all that success makes it harder to compete in the global market. Smith says when Jockey leaves Colombia next year, moves that production to four or five other countries, the company will be spending a lot less per T-shirt.

SMITH: As a percent, 20 to 30 percent.

MCCUNE: Twenty to 30 percent less.


MCCUNE: Imagine you're buying thousands and thousands of T-shirts and you can pay, say, $2 apiece instead of three - that's a big deal. By the time Jockey decided to pull out of Colombia, Smith says, it was pretty much the only American company importing underwear from there.


MCCUNE: Before we leave Colombia, we get to watch our shirts are loaded onto a shipping container - yet another layer of detail along the global journey of a T-shirt.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: OK. So, we need to wait for the dog.

MCCUNE: OK. Mitchell the dog has to sniff every box they load onto the container.

He's making sure there's nothing but pink T-shirts in those boxes. By this time, it's dark, and the women who stitched our T-shirts together are at home, glad to be free of them. They never got a productivity bonus on Planet Money shirts; they just couldn't sew them together fast enough. As to whether they'll keep their jobs next year, that depends on how successfully their company can adapt to the times. In order to be less dependent on the Jockeys of the world, Crystal's CEO says he's been turning the company's focus away from manufacturing for foreign companies toward producing its own successful clothing brands.

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

MCCUNE: They've already opened 160 of their own stores across Latin America, and they have plans for more. So while he's had to cut factory jobs, he says he's adding retail jobs, and that mirrors the path of Colombia's economy. Factory jobs are on the decline but the service sector is growing. If Lina Maria Tascon does lose her job, it will be hard to find a place in that new economy. She dropped out of school at 13 and had a son. Sewing is what she knows. But that son, he's now in college studying graphic design. Maybe by the time he graduates, there will be more jobs for designers at the factory. Marianne McCune, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And you can see video of the workers who made the Planet Money shirts at NPR.org/shirt. You'll hear what they think about us, the people who buy the clothes they sew.


BLOCK: And ALL THINGS CONSIDERED continues in a moment.

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