Sadness Sewn Into the Seams

Asylum seekers being separated from their children at the US border has been a lot of the news lately. It is wrong and inhumane. But there are a whole other category of children separated from their parents as well who have been on my mind lately. These are the 61 million children left in rural China with grandparents, family, in institutions or simply left on their own while their parents work all year in factories in the city. In the largest annual human migration on the planet, at the Lunar New Year millions of people travel back to their villages to see family. For millions of parents this is the only week of the year they will see their children.

This documentary follows one couple on their 40 hour train journey from the city of Shenzen back to the little village where the couple's two children are taken care of by their grandfather. This couple work in clothing factories in Shenzen. They send money back to the village to support their family. They can earn three times as much in the city as in the country. They can't bring their children to the city because they have no residency papers for the city and their children would not be able to go to school there.

The family's farm back at the village is worked only by the old grandfather, who of course cannot keep the farm going by himself. The fields are falling into disrepair. This is farmland which has been farmed continuously for three thousand years in one of the most successful agricultural societies the world has ever known.

This is the reality of the Chinese economy as far I can see - and I would appreciate any thoughts others have on the subject. It is more profitable for China to have its people working in factories than on the land, so workers are lured into the cities with the promise of higher wages, but without any of the privileges of city residency, such as being able to send children to school. When they can't work any more these workers will have to go back to their villages - maybe to take care of the next generation of grandchildren. Where does China's food come from then? Certainly not from family farms any more. China now imports more food than it exports and little villages are no longer self-reliant in food.

In the world's wealthy countries we are implicated in this system because we profit from it greatly. We get lots of cheap stuff from China. Cheap clothes. Lots of them. Cheap cars and toasters. And solar panels. And, well, the list goes on. Again, it is the poor and especially the children of the poor who are being exploited by the wealthy and powerful of the world in a callously unfair system.

And we have bought into it to the extent that even if we want to buy clothes or toasters that are made locally by unexploited workers.. we just can't. The products have ceased to exist.

This is the reason I don't buy new clothes any more. Because they have sadness sewn into the seams.


Beznarf27 said…
Steve and I watched a documentary about fast clothing not so long back and it was about the very same thing but with Bangladeshi families who have the very same thing happening. Their children are left with the grandparents and their parents rarely see them and all so that we can buy "new seasons...", "best value...", "$2 t-shirts at Coles and K-Mart" deals. I haven't bought new clothing for ages now. Aside from the fact that we are middle aged penniless student hippies with limited funds, you can get better quality "no tear" items from the thrift shop that haven't invested heavily into the top 1% making a HUGE profit at the expenses of masses of faceless workers. When we give them a face, when we show their struggles and what they have to do to earn a living we become invested in "their" story and we need to be sharing stories like this to show how life is for many people in the world and to be honest, if most of our current governments in power in the world had their way, it would be the way that most of us would live in order to keep that tiny percentage of UBER rich getting more rich and more powerful. I saw that in one state in the U.S. they have just lowered the (already ridiculously low) minimum wage from $10 down to $7.50. Creating class systems means desperate people willing to do desperate things to simply "live". In order to pull back from this mad rush to extinction we really need to invest our time, energy and most importantly our thought into how to bypass this highway to environmental hell that is dragging so many poor families down with it. Thank you for sharing this Jo. We NEED to know what other people have to do in order for us to make cheap choices and it aint pretty :(
Anonymous said…
Another excellent post, and much food for thought. Thank you. I don't buy much, and I continually try to encourage others to do the same...I don;t think with much success. :( But, I remain hopeful... always.
simplelife said…
It's so confronting isn't it, what other children (and adults) suffer through so our children (and us) can have just whatever we desire at a moment's notice. It's something I battle with constantly.
I also wonder what will happen to all those people if we all just stop buying their goods? Could they really go back to a happy better life? Is that even possible? Are the skills and abilities lost to them? What happens in the gap while they rebuild their practices? They live in countries with no social security. And can they give up the dream they have to make a better life for their children, after seeing and tasting what so many in the world have? I don't have any answers, I try not to support unethical or immoral companies, but it's hard to even know which companies are which. I feel for me it comes down to not being excessive, researching my purchase and taking good care of my things so they last as long as possible.
And don't even get my started on the way we have sold off all our skills and knowledge of manufacturing, what will happen when the ease to ship goods around the world and the freedom to do that collapses? We will be scrambling to take care of ourselves as a country.

Ok off my soapbox
Cheers Kate
Meg said…
This is a big part of the reason why I am learning to sew and to knit again. It puts the power of choice back into my own hands as far as participation in cheap fashion goes. We all pay a much higher price than what's displayed on that docket but it's the poor who pay the most. Then, of course, there's the cost to our Earth. I'm not sure, in terms of other goods, what scope there is for control over choice when it comes to all the cheap gadgets and trinkets produced in parts of the world where "a living wage" doesn't exist and where workers have no rights at all.

Sometimes, I think it is about paying more, if you can afford to and if the choice of a product with a happier and responsible providence is even available. Sometimes, it's about going down to the op-shop and seeing if the need can be met with a pre-loved product. And sometimes about choosing to reassess the need altogether.

It's problematic though because I'm not sure what happens, if global demand for cheap everything, downturns. If we all suddenly decided we didn't need the mass-produced fashion, the cheap plastic toys, the latest mobile phone etc etc. What future then for the factory worker in China? No job? No way to feed a family? No money to send home? I can't see a social security system suddenly emerging to ensure these people survive, let alone live. That's the kind of complex interconnection woven in through all of this.

That kind of complexity begs the question: What is best to do?? Meg

Jo said…
Fran, YES to everything you said! Especially this bit - "In order to pull back from this mad rush to extinction we really need to invest our time, energy and most importantly our thought into how to bypass this highway to environmental hell that is dragging so many poor families down with it."
Our really absolutely terrible capitalist system is designed to create Haves and Have-Nots. It is time for those of us who are the Haves (even those of us who are fairly penniless still have an excellent education and big, loud voices compared to the Have-Nots) to demand change. Many, many already do, and I am jumping on that bandwagon..

Anonymous, yes, doing what we can and remaining hopeful and steadfast is, I think, an excellent way to live:)

Kate and Meg, you have posed the same question, so I will address this to you both: this is the big question, isn't it? Is the status quo better, despite all its drawbacks? The truth is, China has pulled millions out of malnutrition and starvation with its economic boom over the last few decades. And yet, why were they so terribly poor in the first place? Well, often because of government mismanagement and corruption and the historical burden of the peasants providing for the enormous Chinese bureaucracy. Even now, at the height of our population growth, there is enough for everyone, but systemic corruption means a lot of the world goes hungry. If everyone shopped like you and me, the global economy as we know it would definitely suffer in the very short term. However, humans are nothing if not flexible and entrepreneurial. If the demand was for upcycled, recycled and reused products, that market would spring up overnight. If we demanded local manufacturing, it would reappear magically. If we demanded local food, local farmers would become a thing again. It is already happening slowly, but it could happen right now if necessary. China could concentrate on feeding and clothing itself rather than producing tat for rich foreigners.
I think that propping up unjust economic systems which benefit the already wealthy is SO ENTRENCHED that we can't imagine the alternative. So, just imagine the alternative, and that is the beginning..

Meg, I also love your response of becoming a knitter and sewer. Producing stuff for ourselves is so powerful. I can knit but generally don't, and sewing does my head in, but I am going to take up my friend Katherine's offer of learning how to make pyjama pants out of an old sheet. I will do this!
Jo said…
By the way, that alternative I just mentioned, a different way of living for everyone on the planet? It involves the rich nations (that is probably everyone reading this blog) taking a paycut. It means downsizing our expectations of the good life. It means living very simply so that everyone can have a chance at a simple, satisfying life.
simplelife said…
I do agree with you Jo. I'm learning, quite slowly, that I can't control anyone except myself, so while I wait for the change to come from those with the power and the wealth, I shall continue to make the changes that I can make. I must, must continually remind myself that it is enough, because I continually want to make everyone see it my way ha! and get disheartened when my small contributions seem to make no difference. Then I think well if I don't buy that thing because I don't want to support that market, that's one less thing that will be made and if my small, simple acts of rebellion filter through to my children, which I am seeing evidence of as they make their in the world, then that will be 4 people not buying that thing and so it goes.
I'm not an in your face activist, thank goodness others are, but i'm still doing my bit quietly and setting an example for those in my close contact, and for now that must be enough for me.

cheers Kate
Anonymous said…
I think it will be hard to convince many young people to ease up on their frantic consumerism. Those of us who are old enough to remember when clothing was nearly all locally made also remember having the expectation that things would last longer if we cared for them properly, so by golly, we did just that. I remember also, that children's clothes were very expensive - which meant that thousands of young mothers learned to knit and sew, and the grandmothers knitted furiously to keep the babies warm. Wouldn't it be great to see small factories in our towns, making affordable clothing? Most local companies seem to focus mainly on expensive, luxury items for the export and tourist markets.

Thank you for this post, Jo. It's a topic that makes a lot of us just a bit uncomfortable, and that's not a bad thing.

Linda in NZ

Jo said…
Kate, yes, I think that is the only sane way to live - according to your own values. Even if no-one else is affected by what you do, your own actions keep you true to yourself and you can faithfully keep your own little corner of the planet in the way that you believe is right..

Linda, I am pretty sure it isn't just young people who are frantic consumers. Also I do know many young people who are anti-consumers. There is also a groundswell of craft resurgence among young people which is heartening to see. However, I take your point that there is a much more sustainable way to regard clothes - I think it only takes a glance at a vintage wardrobe to realise that the average person had very few clothes sixty years ago, and yes, they were locally made, quite expensive, and lasted for decades, brushed and mended and carefully washed. It is a very different mentality.
Anonymous said…
I am sorry I came across as judgemental and insensitive, and that is not how I mean to be. I know that it isn't just young people who are the big consumers,and I know that many of them are actively involved in trying to live simple and creative lives, and credit is due to them and their families. Enough from me.

Linda in NZ
Anonymous said…
" sadness sewn into the seams".
I very much like that expression. I will use it when I get the quizzical looks at my thrift store shopping.

I do sew and knit.....did you know one can harvest fabric from used clothing and yarn from sweaters, just like your PJ's from sheets.

The question about what would happen if everyone stopped shopping is another comment I get often, I usually reply that as it's not working out so great at the moment, why don't we try a different way.

I did not know about grandparents raising their grandchildren, that is just a sad story.
We in the west are a sad imitation of a civilization if we have to profit on the backs of other people, mostly poor people.

Thanks for the thought provoking post Jo and for all the great comments. Your blog truly gets some great conversations going in the comments which I really enjoy.
As someone mentioned this is a conversation that makes us uncomfortable but that we need to have. It's one that has played on my mind for a long while and I try to make conscious choices and step outside of the 'status quo'. I've found the easiest thing to do was simply not to buy things, now that my wardrobe is getting a little tatty I'm being faced with the challenge again. Time to dig out the sewing machine again I think. I really find often that the best value-fit for me is making my own - whether that be food or clothing. Otherwise I get a little overwhelmed by how to make the 'right' choice. The other option for clothes is second hand but I do struggle with using the time to peruse the second hand shops just in case - I think it triggers my past consumerist tendencies and then I hightail it out of there muttering about not needing anything anyway - and then remembering later that I was trying to be proactive and look before I 'need' and am 'forced' to make a compromising choice. I'm a work in progress for sure...
Thanks for starting the conversation.
Jo said…
Linda, good gracious, I know you weren't being judgemental. I completely see what you mean - knitting and sewing for the children is not a 'normal' thing to do in our society anymore - I just wanted to point out that I think it is coming back, and all is not lost. I think we can have good robust conversations here without offending anyone. I trust we are all good hearted, but, goodness, we can't always get the words out quite how we want them, me particularly. I think it is a good thing to challenge each other on what we do mean exactly, and please, please, do pick me up if you think I am missing something, or talking arrant nonsense, which I often do.. I don't ever mind being disagreed with, as long as the conversation stays civil, which it mostly always does here, such an unusual thing on the internet, so thank you all.

Marieann, yes, I have done that very thing, bought an op-shop jumper to unravel for my crochet blanket project. It was natural, handspun wool, too good to leave at the op-shop.
The thing is, none of us have given up shopping, just shopping for needless tat. Maybe the people who now work in retail selling stupid things could in the future be employed on organic farms which need more labour than conventional farms, or maybe they could be starting their own businesses making useful things locally which I would buy in a heartbeat if they were available..

Laura, yes, I do love the conversations here:) I am impressed at all you people who can sew. It is a battle with me.. I hear you on the need to be proactive when buying secondhand. Forward planning is the key, also one of my downfalls. It has become a bit of a game with me now, as I try to imagine different ways to fulfill a need without buying new; especially as I try to make do with what I have first. Maybe I will be making lots of patchwork clothes as all my old ones fall apart.. :)
Hazel said…
I've been reading and thinking and wondering why I'm so bad at buying from charity shops (our second hand/op shops) and that's it- it's the planning ahead. Something I'm not great at anyway, but I dislike clothes shopping so much I put it off until the last possible minute and then they don't have what I need/ I need to get something fast. Not that I buy much anyway, but I could definitely buy better when I do.
Fernglade Farm said…
Hi Jo,

It is admittedly dysfunctional, but then so is our system. Honestly, debt servitude and indentured labouring etc. are very old stories.


Jo said…
Hazel, ugh, clothes shopping, yes, planning ahead, ugh, the whole thing is outrageous and wrong! But, cost/benefit analysis: op-shopping comes out better for me on all counts! When I have spent 20 minutes trying on jeans I get to reward myself by browsing in the book section:)

Chris, the whole entire global disaster of capitalism is dysfunctional, and lots of unpleasant realities are old stories, but that is no reason to collude with them. Although I am sure that is not what you are suggesting..
followthatchild said…
Wow! That really made me stop and think. I have to get back to op-shopping and making.
Helen in NSW said…
Hi Jo and all,
Great post and I do see some small cause for optimism about the whole topic. I think that the world population size is a part of this story. I once read somewhere that the reason China historically has such a large population is because for centuries men of the merchant and wealthy classes had many, many wives, sometimes scores of them, therefore, so many children. At least that ghastly practice has stopped. Generally,as women are becoming educated in more countries there is a corresponding trend to fewer children. I actually think with a just distribution of resources and technology and innovation our world can provide for all its people and with social improvements such as women achieving rights, the population will stabilize naturally. (Though I am aware of the Taliban backlash against women's rights.)
Re the grandparents caring for children issue: it is also happening here, fortunately more on a daily basis.
Jo said…
Lucy, yes, all these stories make me more determined to shop as ethically as I can, and locally too. I love op-shopping! And I am trying to get better at the making bit..

Helen, oh, yes, I am not particularly against grandparents taking care of children - that can be a wonderful arrangement when it suits all parties, although clearly somewhat lacking in this case, due to difficult circumstances. The worse cases are when young teenagers are left to care for their young siblings alone, as appears to happen frequently as well.
I do agree that there are resources aplenty for all of us if we share in them equally - even with the world population we currently have. My problem is that resources are not shared equitably, due to power structures that tip the balance in the direction of the wealthy countries. That results in cheap clothes for us and a raw deal for the clothing factory workers in China. That doesn't seem fair to me, so I have tried to opt out of that system as much as possible. It seems like I could do more as well, but I am still thinking about what..

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