Cathy Terranova Blog

Global estimates put the number of enslaved persons between 21 and 30 million people. MillionStatistics point at 76 percent of those people being in forced labor. 22 percent of victims fall under the category of sex slavery.
I don’t engage in the commercial sex trade, but I am an unwilling and too often unwitting, participant in the lives of the other 76 percent. While it is impossible to cut myself off from participation in the slave trade, I can make a difference even just as one person. It’s bigger than just not shopping at Wal-Mart. It’s paying close attention to where things come from. Often, the things that we scoff at on the Wal-Mart shelves are coming into our lives all the same, just in different forms.
It’s hard enough for a chronically ill person to find a job and then usually it takes a huge amount of work to keep it. So when I started working at a popular store in a local mall I thought that I would be okay. I just wouldn’t buy any of the clothes and I’d be guilt-free.
I had grandiose notions that I could write letters to corporate, engage with fellow employees, and go home at the end of the day feeling like I had at least done something to combat the ignorance surrounding the evils of the garment industry.
My first week I noticed that the jeans came from Bangladesh. I tried to bury the knowledge that Dhaka, Bangladesh garment workers were the victims of a massive garment factory fire. 117 people died and 200 more were injured when poor working conditions finally hit critical danger-levels and a fire broke out.
As more and more dresses came in I noticed that they were mainly made in India. A country whose cotton farmers are facing an epidemic of suicides because of the state of the cotton market.
Other clothes came from Vietnam. Workers there spend long days, often in excess of 12 hours sewing garment after garment.
In Uzbekistan, children are taken from school and from their parents to participate in government sanctioned slave labor on cotton farms. The cotton goes all over the world.
Often, handling the garments at work made me queasy. During my first couple weeks, I had a discussion with my boss about how many coffee fields in Guatemala are owned by Starbucks, but instead of seeing any benefit, the people are still hungry and the U.S. has seen a surge of refugees from there. But I was met with the statement, “But they aren’t doing anything illegal”.
No, not illegal, but when the CEO’s worth is over 3 billion and he promises healthcare and to pay for employees to get community college degrees, why are the people who grow the beans starving?
On top of the garments themselves, I met face to face the mentality that drives corrupt business. People don’t want to pay what things are worth. Customer after customer would complain about the retail prices. $45 for a pair of jeans is too much! $25 for a shirt is so expensive!
But is it?

A farmer grows the cotton for a shirt. He must be paid fairly for the cotton.
The cotton is sent to a textile mill where the fabric is woven. The workers must be paid fairly to weave the fabric.
A printing shop creates the patterns on the material. The block printers must be paid fairly for their craft.
The material is sold to the garment mill, which makes the shirt and 20,000 others just like it. The workers must be paid enough to feed and shelter themselves.
The company buys the shirt and then, ships it to a storefront.
The company pays employees to sell the shirts. They must also be paid fairly for their work.

When you say that $25 is too much for that amount of work, for a shirt that has traveled thousands of miles and been touched hundreds of times just to get to you, you are not being logical.
When we constantly buy cheaper, we make it so that everything in the chain must be cheaper.
We make the farmer unable to feed his family in India. We make the textile mills rife with forced labor. We force the garment workers to toil over machines that have not been upgraded or replaced because it would affect the bottom line. We silently agree with and support cutting corners that cause fires. We give money to people who look the other way when the cotton is picked by children.
Companies are not competing for each other’s money. They compete for ours.

I couldn’t continue to participate; to nod my head and tell people that the clothes are worth it, that they look great, that it’s an “investment”. My silence was being purchased. My checks cleared, didn’t they? Enough was enough.

I kept telling myself that I was taking it all too seriously. But that’s exactly what we need to do. We need to take it seriously.

Then I saw how I was part of the chain. I was connected to it, I was also a commodity, and so were my co workers.

To call the focus on numbers in the company an obsession is not an exaggeration. We needed to make money. We needed to sell the clothes. We needed to pump out as much merchandise as possible. If we didn’t, it must be because we weren’t trying hard enough. At three o’clock every day the mid-day numbers were called in, are you on pace to make money? Make money! Sell clothes! At nine-thirty every night a closing report was sent. Did you make enough money? Why not? Sell! Sell! Sell! If you don’t, the problem is you, not the expectations.
Small things became of enormous importance. Are these not folded correctly? Why are these hung up wrong? Why did you not get enough customer emails? Enough loyalty program sales? Why did you not staple this to the correct side of the paper?

The last reason for my quitting is hard for me to share. I don’t like talking about my feelings. I don’t like pointing fingers when I can’t be part of the solution. But I saw that my co worker was not being treated fairly. Unfortunately, there was a lot of evidence that pointed toward it being because of her race.
I put together the case that I could for her mistreatment. Unfortunately, the only evidence that I had that didn’t count as hearsay or personal opinion made my case look different, but none the less, reasonable. I called the hotline and filed a report.
I waited for the shoe to drop.
In the meantime, I was filled in that the district manager was aware of the circumstances.
No part of me wanted to be around any of those people anymore, let alone make them money.
The evening after the district manager had come and done her diligent round of finger-wagging and victim-questioning because of my hotline call, I went into work, oblivious that any of that had occurred.
It wasn’t until I found myself arguing with the manager over something idiotic it really sank in at full force. I had to leave.

I had meant to just give two week’s notice the next time I saw her, but instead, I opened my mouth and I quit. I told her to her face that what she did was unethical. I left my key. I made a scene. I left. Then, I took my first real breath in months.
The next day I had a long conversation with my co worker and told her she was the reason I finally quit.

It was terrifying to quit. I’ve applied to places, but I haven’t heard back. It feels reckless but it isn’t. People are not commodities. They aren’t garment making or selling robots. Our technology and food and textiles all come from somewhere. We make the decision of how to spend the money that we earn.
While I can’t just abstain from everything until there are no slaves, I can shout as loudly and as often as possible about how real slavery is until we as a global populous do something more.

But we have to start with ourselves. If it’s okay for children to pick cotton because the government tells them to, it makes it okay for my co worker to be treated unfairly because of her race. If we say it’s okay for the cotton farmer and his family to go hungry because the shirt needs to be cheaper then it is okay for farmers in the U.S. to go hungry.

Doing the right thing, demanding better, these things take courage and passion and conviction. We aren’t bound to accept the status quo.

And I know that there are 30 million people, and one, who would thank you for taking a stand too.


photo credit: <a href=”″>Pure silk handmade</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>(license)</a>

abuse, Christian, courage, Faith, garment industry, healing, hope, Jesus, Life, modern day slavery, racism, rethink trauma, slavery, suffering, workplace