Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Indian Wallets

I was checking out probably the twentieth mother-daughter combination of the day when my blood ran cold. The item that gave me pause was a George wallet, which I had seen before, or more accurately, I had seen its case before. The wooden case was simple, yet very sharp looking. The interlocking wooden pieces were unstained, with the logo burned into the wood, perfectly framing the black leather wallet. While unremarkable to most, the case was etched into my memory from an experience on the other side of the world -- the slums of Chennai, India.

On my semester abroad during college I had the opportunity to visit several different countries for a few days, with this city on India's southeastern coast being one of the stops. My last morning in Chennai I visited the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board, a group that built housing for those living in the city's low-lying slums. While their work was interesting, what really caught my attention was the tiny concrete building we visited: a sweatshop. The shop was relatively well-ventilated and not too cluttered; however, this was the shop the state-government run board brought us to. Several bare chested men in the front room labored to cut small wooden pieces for the boxes using a deafening buzz saw. In the adjacent room several dozen brightly dressed women crowded around the tables to build the boxes, using a potent glue and paintbrushes. What appeared to be the two youngest girls of the group did their work on the floor, sitting cross-legged and barefoot. When completed their finished product would be filled with the leather wallets that the shop had made the previous month.

After pestering all of my tour guides and one of the male workers who spoke broken English (my Tamil is not what it used to be...) I pieced together the story of this sweatshop. Small orders for various multi-national corporations were filled here, with the product being made rotating on a fairly regular bi-weekly basis. It was hard to become a worker in the shop since this was one of the few employers in the slum. While the jobs were hard and the hours were long, what little money they made was still better than nothing one of the guides reasoned. To my obvious follow up question he informed me that the workers logged 48 hour weeks for $40 per month, which I later calculated to be less than 19 cents per hour. The leather George wallet in its sharp wooden case sells for $14.96 at WAL-MART. Hard to beat that price.

With my line beginning to grow behind the two women, I stopped my unsuccessful search for a tag inside the wallet (obstensibly pretending to deactivate the wallet's alarm.) I realize that the odds are small, but I would bet a day's pay that this wallet and case were made by Indian's in the state of Tamil Nadu. Now I know that the allegation that WAL-MART makes some of its products in developing countries in less than ideal working conditions is hardly shocking, but this experience certainly made this reality hit home for me. From then on, whenever I saw a tag that read Made in China, or Honduras, or Bangladesh, I couldn't help but conjure up the image of that quiet barefoot girl, who wore all the colors of the rainbow, making WAL-MART's $14.96 leather wallet for 19 cents per hour.

11 comments:

An Associate said...

per request of several readers, yesterday i went back to jewelry to look at the rest of these wallets. sure enough, a more careful search confirmed that they were MADE IN INDIA.

Joshua said...

I've been enjoying your writing, your story-telling. I've never been to India, but you've been able to give me a glipse. This is a powerful post.

-Joshua
http://jfecteau.blogspot.com

Ann said...

You have very good writing skills. This post sounds like it came out of a book!

Anonymous said...

yes, a book alright....on of fanciful embellishments

Anonymous said...

The very fact that you've been to a slum in India proves that your little mission to help throw Wal-Mart to the ground isn't needed. You should be liberating the slums of third world countries! Maybe if you write your little "book" (of embellishments) you can send the proceeds to little rainbow-dressed girls in India. Oh, give me a break. Drama queen.

GILBERT said...

What really amazes me is that you would have me boycot Walmart, put rainbow girl out of an honest job and have her walking the streets to survive!!!! Leave well enough alone.

Jay said...

Embellishments? I'm from India, "Anonymous" cowards, AND I worked at Walmart in Florida before I graduated from college. So far, everything I have read in Josh's blogs are as accurate as mine and many hundreds of other "Associates" experiences. You must be Walmart sympathizers, stockholders, or the evil like.

www.encontactos.com said...

So, I do not actually believe it is likely to work.

Steven said...

Alright "Jay" if that's even your name, if this is all true, then why did you even apply at Walmart? And what would getting rid of Walmart do? Sure wouldn't help anyone in India, shut up and do something about it if it means that much to you. Don't bitch online about something that wont help and claim it will.

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Rayne said...

Lol, honestly I can partially relate to your complaints about working at WM. But like I said, only partially. I've been working as a cashier for about a month and a half now, and it's the easiest job I've had. I started out at Thriftway, a small AF chain that still believes in small town grocery stores, where you're hired as a stocker, a clerk, a bagger, a carry out, a people greeter and a maintenance attendant all at the same time. At WM, you do what you're hired to do, that's it. I applied at WM after working at McDonald's for 2 miserable years for $7.50. I hated working that job, so I found another one. And that's exactly what you should you. If you can't handle one of the easiest positions that WM has to offer, then quit, and find a new job. One that you might like. You'd make a fine critic, that's for certain. Working at WM can be frustrating and boring at times, but it isn't rocket science, and it isn't pure hell to be a cashier. Imagine being an unloader, back room associates have it much worse. Quit whining and go somewhere else. Some of us need those paychecks that you take for granted.