Norwegian Reality Series Shows Fashionistas the Dark Side of 'Dead Cheap Fashion'

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What happens when you send three young fashionistas to a Cambodian sweatshop for a month? Aftenposten, Norway’s biggest newspaper, answered this question with a five-part, online reality TV series.

In “Sweatshop: Dead Cheap Fashion,” fashion-conscious Norwegians Anniken Jorgensen, Frida Ottesen and Ludvig Hambro fly to Phnom Penh, where they work with and interview people that work in the type of facility that produces clothes for some of their favorite brands. The three step fully into the life of the average textile worker, sleeping on concrete, living on $3 a day and sewing for eight hours a day.

“Those who make the garments should also be able to afford them,” he said.

The series manages to avoid exploitative, reality show gimmicks by featuring the young Norwegians working and talking earnestly with Cambodian coworkers. They and the audience learn from sweatshop workers and activist Siang Yot about human rights violations that pervade the industry.

The garment industry makes up 95 percent of Cambodia’s exports and employs over 500,000 workers, a majority of whom are women. They make barely over US$100 per month, according to NGO Clean Clothes, which is just enough to cover basic living expenses.

"You can't solve everything or fix such a global problem," Jorgensen said. "But they really don't ask for much — to get a bit more money, some fans in the ceiling in a factory. We just have to push to get it done."

In addition to meager wages, workers also endure terrible working conditions. Mass faintings are common in poorly ventilated buildings and sometimes the buildings themselves collapse from shoddy construction — the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh that killed 1,130 people in April 2013 brought this issue into the global spotlight, and has spurred many fashion brands and retailers to develop plans to improve conditions.

In September, worker protests in Phnom Penh prompted eight leading retailers — including H&M, Primark and Inditex — to commit to increase wages to $US177 per month. The companies also told Cambodia’s deputy prime minister and the chairman of the local Garment Manufacturers Association they were "ready to factor higher wages" into their pricing.

H&M, one of Cambodia’s largest buyers, has also laid out a plan to pay a fair "living wage" to its roughly 850,000 Cambodian and Bangladeshi textile workers by 2018, and in the past year has partnered with NGOs including Swedfund, Solidaridad and the ILO to improve conditions for textile workers throughout its supply chain.

Despite these commitments, the retailer is called out in the series for continued dismal working conditions and meager wages in its Cambodian factories. When asked for an update on progress in this area, H&M pointed back to its plan to provide living wages by 2018, but would not comment further.

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