Tho has been sewing clothes for Australian fashion labels for 17 years. She shares her struggle to obtain decent pay and conditions, and a message for outworkers.
I have worked as a clothing outworker for 17 years, ever since I resettled in Australia in 1994. In this time I have shed sweat and tears in a job where the pay I receive is incomparable to my efforts.
There is a Vietnamese proverb which says “Fertiliser makes the rice good, silk makes the girls attractive”. The more our living standards increase, the greater and more complicated our needs and wants become. No matter what level of society, rich or poor, we all need clothes to suit our circumstances.
We, the wide network of homeworkers, have contributed our hard work and efforts to produce beautiful clothing for people. We have endured exploitation by the bosses, who rob us of our labour without care for how we feel. We have given the people all kinds of beautiful clothes, adorned all of society:
From babies to the elderly;
From workers to politicians;
From models to movie stars;
From students to high ranking officials;
From casual clothes to evening wear
From Spring to Summer then Autumn to Winter, we have created clothes for all the seasons.
We deal with so many styles and designs. Day by day they become more complex, and we work harder and harder. We put a lot in to the garments but get very little money in return. We work 14-15 hours a day on average, being paid around $3-$4 an hour.
If you can imagine a tiny room of a house or garage, with only 15-20 square metres, this is where we spend our lives. Everything is in there–an overlocker to join different parts of the garments together, a sewing machine for adding more detail to the clothes, such as flowers, leaves, branches. There are chairs to sit on, and boxes to store things in, including needles, threads, and sewing machine oil. Some of us try to make the work environment more positive and reduce our isolation by putting on the television or a movie, or listening to the stereo while we work in that small space.
In the winter when it is very cold our hands feel frozen, but in the summer we sweat so much that our eyes hurt. Dust from all the fabric blows around the room and fills out lungs all year round.
We work until late at night, days on end. Those who have trouble getting to sleep at night will also understand how long the night can be.
The work, however, is irregular, and our income is not secure. Even when you do finish an order, you still have to wait 2 or 3 weeks to get the money. Sometimes we joke that asking the boss to pay you is like putting yourself in the firing line. And when the bosses do finally come to pay us, they always try to find a reason to pay us less, sometimes even pretending that we have made mistakes or that some of the garments have not been well sewn.
We know that we’re being exploited, but we bite our tongues when they pay us such little money, because we feel that we have ‘taken the knife by the blade’.
We, the homeworkers, have been robbed by these bosses year after year. Why? Perhaps because we didn’t know we were being robbed, didn’t know what our rights are, or perhaps because we were a bit older when we came as refugees to Australia. We had to look after our children and family, we spoke a different language, we accepted work as clothing outworkers, we worked in isolation at home and had no opportunity to go out in to society, to learn English, to learn about our rights. For these and so many other reasons we accepted this fate. We have worked secretly at home, hidden away in isolation, and our bosses have taken advantage of this.
Sometimes we cry out “oh god… why?!” but he does not understand our situation.
Australian society is a humanitarian one, with laws to protect workers, and organisation that struggle for the rights of homeworkers. If we want to escape this exploitation we have to dare to look for other work, to ask the government to support us in retraining, learning English, finding other work, and with the support of other organisations who are fighting for our rights. And we have a responsibility to speak up to our bosses when we are overworked and underpaid.
Here at the beginning of 2011, with the extreme heat of summer in Australia, I am expressing my feelings as a woman who has worked at home sewing clothes for 17 years. During that time, a pretty young woman has been eroded, and become an older and weak woman with swollen arms, wrinkles and blurry eyes due to malnutrition and lack of sleep.
I wish all outworkers an opportunity to change career, or find a better job, and hope that there will be more improvements for all of us as outworkers in 2011.
Tho’s story provided by FairWear Australia