Eighty high school students lined cafeteria tables in Moeller High School the night of Feb. 24, manufacturing duct tape wallets and writing slogans on T-shirts. A boom box played Madonna singing, "You know we're living in a material world. And I am a material girl."
Their supervisors, mostly Xavier University students, watched for incompetence and goofing off.
"Why are you laughing?" barked a couple of the supervisors.
Even smiling could draw a punishment. Violators stood with their arms extended for several minutes or put their backs against the wall in a crouching position, then went back to work until midnight without a break, just like everyone else.
Even so, they were lucky. Unlike the millions of workers around the world who sit and sweat in factories and sew 96 percent of the clothing Americans wear, these students didn't have to go back to "work" the next day, because this factory was just an imitation. In the real world, managers track employee efficiency to the hundredth of a second.
Workers put in 10-hour shifts and can sew a button in 1.3 seconds.
The three-hour simulation made an impression on some of the students, most of whom attend Catholic high schools.
At first Liz Gottmer, 17, a senior at St. Ursula Academy, told herself, "If I had any self-respect, I would not sit through this."
Then she remembered that real workers with these jobs, most of whom are women, have no choice.
"Overworked, Underpaid" was the second event of its kind. Last year the sweatshop simulation lasted seven hours, until 4 a.m. But Todd Forman, community services director at Moeller, thought that was too much; students fell asleep at the tables.
This year the 18-hour event kicked off at 5 p.m. with students checking the clothing on their tags to see where their clothes came from and with a skit by members of Students Against Sweatshops at XU.
Students worked in the faux sweatshop, slept at school, woke up to a breakfast of stale bagels, played a global trade chip game that emphasized just how powerful wealthy nations are and listened to representatives from American Apparel, an L.A.-based, sweatshop-free clothing company planning to open a store in Cincinnati.
Two University of Dayton (UD) students spoke about their five days in Bangladesh with Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott. When Scott visited UD, Emily Nohner, a junior human rights major, organized a meeting with about 15 students and Dayton residents concerned about conditions in the overseas factories that supply Wal-Mart. Scott said the company's suppliers are the best of the bunch and invited Nohner to see for herself.
Last summer she and fellow student Adam Schnier, president of the UD student chapter of Amnesty International, joined company executives on a visit to Bangladesh. Wal-Mart rates factories, in descending order, green, yellow, orange or red, refusing to buy from a factory rated red three times. Schnier and Nohner saw factories at nearly every level.
The heat in the factories was intense, Schnier said. In one orange-level factory, bugs flew in and out of a huge vat of rice in the kitchen. Nohner also saw a $1 million filtration system that could turn water from muddy to crystal clear.
And she saw machines that shoot sand on jeans to give them a weathered look. They are "ear-shatteringly" loud, she said, but the available noise-canceling headphones and eye-protection helmets can't physically be worn at the same time.
Factory conditions were worse before the Kathy Lee Gifford scandal broke in the early 1990s. One factory room that used to have 150 workers now has 75, Nohner said. Still, change comes slowly in the developing world, and Wal-Mart still buys from middlemen who buy from factories Wal-Mart doesn't audit.
A slow improvement is better than suddenly cutting off a factory, because these are often the best jobs people in Bangladesh and other countries can find, Schnier said.
"The facts are heartbreaking, but I don't have any other jobs to offer these people," he said.
'Doing everything right'
How do you create an economy that values people and provides good jobs? One answer might be in Los Angeles.
In the morning students saw a slide presentation while listening to a presentation about American Apparel. Dov Charney, a Montreal native with a background in photography and street T-shirt vending, founded the company in 1997. He wanted to build a profitable company that made quality clothing and still paid its workers well.
American Apparel originally supplied screen printers with 10 different types of T-shirts and other basics made in an old factory in Los Angeles. The beginning staff of 60 earned $8 an hour, according to Roian Atwood, director of environmental and organic programs.
Now the company has 4,000 employees and a waiting list of 2,000 others who want to work there. It produces 130 different styles of clothing, including dog T-shirts. Ninety-eight percent of the workers speak Spanish and are from Mexico and other parts of Latin America.
"We pay the highest wages in the world (for sewing)," said Cynthia Semon, company spokeswoman.
The pay averages $13.50 an hour.
American Apparel began opening its own stores in 2000 and now has more than 100, including one in Columbus. Plans call for a store to open at West McMillan and Clifton avenues in the spring.
"We're kind of an anomaly." Atwood said. "We scare certain people. Certain people are curious."
He said the key to American Apparel is "vertical integration," doing everything in-house, so it can crank out thousands of custom-designed pieces almost overnight. This allows it to respond to demands much more quickly than companies that wait weeks for their products to arrive.
The company uses solar power in its factory, biodiesel in its trucks and organic cotton in its clothing. It will soon open an in-house health clinic to complement its soccer teams and English classes. Workers receive breaks for massages and calisthenics.
Charney has drawn criticism for his sexually charged ads featuring employees in suggestive positions (visit www.americanapparel.net). After Atwood and Semon's presentation, one mother wondered why a company founded on being sweatshop-free is so explicit in advertising.
Charney wants to celebrate "the best of human sexuality," not exploit people Atwood said.
Three schools declined to participate in the event at Moeller, citing the company's ads. But accentuated the positive.
"They're doing everything right and making a ton of money," he said.
"Overworked, Underpaid" helped Moeller senior Chris Luckhaupt, 18, sense how poor some people around the world are.
"It's really hard to imagine when you're living in a wealthy neighborhood," he said. ©