Business, Finance & Economics

In Liberia, a different kind of factory

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(Image by Flickr user David Dennis (cc:by-sa))

The West African nation of Liberia was essentially broken by 14 years of civil war. That war ended in 2003. But Liberia still struggles to cope with what the conflict left behind. One legacy is a sky-high unemployment rate — estimated to be as high as 80 percent. There are pockets of hope, though. The World’s Jason Margolis visited a sewing factory in Monrovia that’s making t-shirts bound for the U-S.

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The women in Liberia making t-shirts know how to sew, but only by hand, not with modern machines. Enter, Gino Marello, Italian trainer and task master.

“Don’t, don’t don’t, don’t wait too much.”

Marello walks around the factory with a stopwatch hanging around his neck.

“You should’ve been finished now.”

He’s only got a few weeks to get these women trained. He looks anxious, continually muttering about “bad quality.”

“No this is not good. I don’t like it.”

He’s tough. But he’s also like a cuddly Italian Santa Claus. And these women’s spirits can’t be dampened.

“Tomorrow I want to see who will be the first to be the first to pass the test.”
Laughter from women

Most of the 32 women being trained here used to be tailors. But like Eliza Jones, they left the freedom of their shops for the shackles of 9 to 5 employment.

“Because sometimes I would have customers, sometimes I won’t have any customers. Sometimes the money would be good, sometimes it’s nothing.”

Now she gets paid every month, $100. That’s $30 dollars more than an average civil servant makes in Liberia. The women also get medical insurance and a monthly bag of rice.
And, they work in air conditioning, a rare treat in the stifling West African heat. Kumba Lobo says she certainly doesn’t miss her little tailor shop.

“It was hot. It was not easy. (laughs) It was not easy.”

The women are able to enjoy these conditions because their factory is being audited by the organization Transfair USA, which is based in Oakland, California.
Textiles manager Heather Franzes was visiting the factory in Monrovia. She says to be consdiered “fair trade,” the factory has to comply with 90 standards.

“So on things like child labor, forced labor, health and safety, working hours, wages.”

And, the t-shirts can only get the fair trade stamp of approval if every step of the manufacturing process is up to standards.

“In this case, it’s a full West African supply chain. So the cotton is grown in Mali and Burkina Faso, it’s shipped to Morocco where it’s spun into yarn and fabric, and then sewn here in Liberia.”

The man who owns the factory in Monrovia is Chid Liberty. He was born in Liberia, but his family fled to the United States after a military coup in 1980. As a young man, Liberty decided he wanted to return to his native country and help it rebuild.

“Unfortunately there wasn’t really the political or economic climate here that would allow me to come and do something. I’ve always been an entrepreneur since I was a little kid. So I knew I wanted to do something in economic development, and specifically in small business development.”

Two years ago, Liberty decided it was finally safe to return. And when he started his apparel company, he was determined to make it good for the workers. He says he’ll take no profits from the Monrovia sewing project. He earns his living through a trading business back in the States. Liberty says all future earnings in Monrovia will be put into a fund.

“And these women actually decide where that money goes in terms of building schools, roads, health clinics in their communities.”

Liberty also thinks putting the fair trade label on his t-shirts makes good business sense. Each shirt tells a story.

“And that’s actually our competitive advantage over a factory in China or a factory specifically that uses sweatshop labor, is that we say, listen, we have a supply chain you can actually boast about.”

This may be true. But Liberty’s biggest challenge may be out of his control, namely, getting consumers to pay a little extra for his shirts.
Paying workers better wages, giving them healthcare… that costs money. And those extra costs eventually get passed onto the consumer. The shirts being sewn in Monrovia will be sold next spring under the Prana label, a California company.
In research studies, consumers say they are willing to spend a little extra money to support a good cause. But economic historian James McWillians at Texas State University says our values don’t always match our actions, especially during tough economic times.

“When the rubber hits the road, if you’ve just lost a job, or you’re working two or three jobs to try and make ends meat, and you love the idea of fair trade, you’re going to be much less likely to spend an extra dollar or two to support the cause.”

McWilliams supports the concept of fair trade and says it’s a noble idea. But he says it’s based on some shaky economic principles. Fair trade products must still compete in the marketplace, essentially selling similar items, at higher prices.

“It’s a very difficult thing to do, and at some point the laws of economics are going to catch up with you.”

The people at TransFair USA know they’re asking consumers to pay a bit more their apparel. But founder and president Paul Rice says people are willing. He notes that when he began his organization a decade ago – selling fair trade bananas and coffee – a lot of people were skeptical.

“They knew Fair trade would work for the Whole Foods, crunchy granola, birkenstock crowd, right? But who thought that fair trade would work in Dunkin Donuts and Walmart? Well lo and behold, Dunkin Donuts, Walmart and bunch of others have put fair trade products out there. And they’re selling very, very well.”

Rice says when American consumers understand that their choice of a t-shirt can help women in Liberia rebuild their lives or send their kids to school…

“That’s incredibly powerful, and incredibly compelling. And American consumers once they hear about, it they want to be a part of it.”

It’s hard to argue with that when you’ve seen the Monrovia factory first-hand. When I was there, I was trying to maintain my journalistic distance and objectivity. Then Florence Johnson and some of the other women at the factory started singing.

SINGING: “Things are getting better. Things are getting better. With the Lord on our side, things are getting better, things are getting better, things are getting better.”

Whatever your thoughts about the fair trade model, or the likelihood of economic recovery for Liberia, what these women are doing does inspire hope.
For the World, I’m Jason Margolis, Monrovia, Liberia.

GROUP SINGING “Things are getting better. Yes, yes, yes… Things are getting better. For the Lord is on our side. Things are getting. Things are getting. Things are getting better.” ( Laughter)