Norway could be heaven on Earth
Norwegians have an average life expectancy of 81 years, income of $58,810, and one of the best education systems in the world. With a highly social tax system, Norwegians benefit from incredible health care, free college opportunities, and more paid time off when compared to most of the world.
Other than brutal winters, Norway is a near-utopian country with a smaller divide between wealthy and impoverished. There’s incredible privilege in this economy.
A Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten, decided to select three prominent fashion bloggers — Frida, Ludvig, and Anniken — to journey to Cambodia. These bloggers obsess and pour over the latest fashion trends. They write and photograph their latest finds for the world to see. Additionally, they make money from their features through advertisements and endorsement deals.
Welcome to Cambodia!
Aftenposten wanted to expose these bloggers to the garment workers on the other end of the manufacturing industry for their favorite clothes. As many of the worst worker conditions and best trade relations are in South Asian countries, they selected Cambodia.
With personal cameras, beaming smiles, and naive curiosity, these three traveled to Cambodia to “discover” what garment workers’ jobs are like — for a month. Almost instantly after they landed in the foreign land, they remarked about how they expected more “shops,” cleaner markets, and cheaper food prices.
They immediately experienced culture shock — from privilege to poverty in one flight.
Wages that keep people in poverty
Over the course of the next five episodes, the three explore their neighborhood and interview garment workers. The first, Sokty, tells about making around $3-4 per day. She usually works 7 days a week, and often works from 7 AM to 8 PM.
Sokty sleeps on her floor, covered in some blankets. Her shower is a bucket, where she pours water over herself. She has a clothes line that is about 5 feet long and has a few shirts. She can’t afford to buy the clothes she sews.
There’s a TV, and some photos are pasted to her walls. To many Americans, this austerity and poverty is likely uncomfortable. Societally, we tend to rationalize away these discomforts, rather than face them.
Empathy through exposure
Anniken initially appears uncomfortable, but explains away this feeling by saying they don’t know any better/different. Further, she points out that these Cambodian garment workers are probably used to it, and that’s why they’re okay with this disparity.
Without even a sliver of remorse, sadness, or regret, her explanation weighs heavy for the remaining episodes. They’re a harbinger for a painful self-discovery of ignorance.
See, as the month-long journey flies by, the group becomes increasingly aware of their false assumptions and prejudices about garment workers in far away places. They realize that these people deserve better. And that they — as fashion bloggers — have a role in changing it.
Sometimes it’s as simple as exposure. By accepting the request to appear in a reality series, these three Norwegians grew immensely. One aspect that seemed to change their understanding was trying to buy a dinner on three garment paychecks for the day ($9 total). They cooked the most basic food, which was heavily watered down to feel like more.
“We are rich because they are poor.”
By the conclusion, their voices were unified in disgust and shame for their buying habits. They suddenly realized the consequences of their shopping habits. The Norwegians wrapped up filming with a new resolution: go back home and share their story with others. Ultimately, they wanted to pressure major clothing retailers to choose more worker-friendly locations, paychecks, and rights.
Repeatedly, Ludvig noted how their lives were great in Norway, because theirs (Cambodian garment workers’) “suck.” His words spoke to the fundamental horror of capitalism: where one succeeds, another falls.
We’ve set up a system of trading and exchange, where some people’s money goes further than others. There’s a reason most of our clothing is manufactured elsewhere, and it’s not because they have vastly more productive workers — they just have fewer restrictions and depressed incomes.
That’s not a solution for a fair, just society.
Here are three ways we can correct these inequalities: