Saturday, Feb. 13, 2010

No Sweat

By David Luhrssen
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Beneath the glamor of the fashion industry is a factory system built largely on the backs of ill-paid, often mistreated workers in “developing countries” and in Los Angeles, nowadays the hub of America’s garment industry for companies that haven’t exported their jobs to China and elsewhere. In No Sweat (out Feb. 23 on DVD), documentary filmmaker Amie Williams turns her camera on two very different LA firms that claim to take the sweat out of the shops.

Company A, SweatX, was funded on venture capital by Ben & Jerry’s Ben Cohen with the intention of developing into a worker-owned co-op. Company B, American Apparel, was founded by maverick entrepreneur NDov Charney as a business with a conscience. Both claim a commitment to the plight of the immigrant, largely Latina workers drawn to the garment factories.

The contrast in personalities couldn’t be more pronounced. Cohen appears rational and benign while Charney is a triple Red Bull of maniacal energy. As shown in No Sweat, SweatX was losing money and having trouble finding a footing in the market. American Apparel was successful with its sexy clothing line. But according to No Sweat, there was trouble in the workers paradise. Charney treated his employees to on-the-job massage and other remarkable benefits, but paid them according to what they produced in an exhausting piecework system. He appeared to thwart a unionization drive by the garment workers union through intimidation. And there were charges of sexual harassment.

No Sweat is a provocative documentary leaving a pessimistic impression: it won’t be easy to bring progress to an industry grown fat on exploitation in a society that doesn’t want to worry about who makes the cheap products it consumes.

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