Primary Voice is one of the most inspiring projects I have come across.
Started in 2014 by urbanist Mikaela Kvan, Primary Voice is about giving a voice to the people behind the manufacturing of our clothes and “sharing their stories and acknowledge the value of their individual lives.”
There are multiple projects that highlight the conditions in which garment workers produce clothes for the fashion industry and work to change the supply chain methods. However, what makes Primary Voice stand out is that it tells workers’ stories from their own perspective – in their own words – about their daily struggles and, most importantly, their dreams.
We tend to forget that people living in precarious conditions need not only need better wages and working environments, but also opportunities to fulfill their own dreams.
In this interview, Mikaela kindly provided us with an in-depth view and detailed description of Primary Voice, while also inspiring us to listen to the voices and stories of the people behind the clothes we wear.
What is Primary Voice and how did it started ?
Primary Voice is an online archive of the life stories of women and men who make the items we use everyday. Together their stories form a discussion that identifies development indicators, such as education, entrepreneurship and child welfare in a rapidly urbanizing world. In addition, their stories illustrate challenges mass manufacturing workers overcome each day to achieve their dreams.
The project initially began as research funded by a student fellowship and travel grant from the India China Institute at The New School in partnership with The Starr Foundation.
What are the reasons or inspiration behind the creation of Primary Voice?
Primary Voice is the result of many threads woven together. Perhaps the most important to me at the moment is my work as an urban researcher. In 2013, as a student at Parsons School of Design, I began to investigate urban development in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
My background in Urban Design drove me to assess the city’s dramatic social and physical transformations. The city was, and still is, experiencing dramatic change to its landscapes everyday as new factories and residential enclaves consume agricultural land and interrupt natural ecological processes.
The dramatic uptick in mass manufacturing – of which garment production is the highest grossing industry – in Phnom Penh is a direct result of global industries seeking cheaper operating costs and alternatives to China. Primary Voice initially focused on workers stories in China and Cambodia because of this direct relationship.
Why is it important to share the message of the fashion industry garment workers ?
While it is necessary to improve working conditions in factories and for workers to gain higher wages, understanding the larger picture within which garment workers and all mass manufacturing workers are situated is pertinent to our collective ability to work towards higher standards of living and wellbeing in all areas of the world’s most vulnerable populations.
Workers did not directly state they want to earn more money. Most often, workers implied they lacked financial ability when speaking about their children’s education. This was the case with Channa, a mother of four, who couldn’t afford to send her children to school everyday because she also needed to feed her children adequately and pay the rent for their 8x8ft room.
From one story alone we can infer access to low-cost or free childhood education, reasonably priced food and affordable housing are critical inter-related issues workers face everyday.
What are the main struggles faced by garment workers according to your experience interviewing them?
From the stories on Primary Voice’s website I can identify four dominant themes relevant to both China and Cambodia: entrepreneurship, financial security, child welfare, and education. Within these dominant themes workers do attest to their struggles and challenges but there are also many examples of aspiration and hope.
Financial stability is one theme that can serve as an umbrella. For families in China, workers spoke about their desire to buy houses to secure their children’s social and financial positions. As a rural migrant, home ownership and car ownership have become two of Gao’s chief goals. For Ding, having a steady job and taking overtime at other factories was necessary to be able to send his daughter to university in the US.
In Cambodia, financial stability was necessary for more immediate reasons. Cambodian workers explained they wanted to be able to feed their families. A few suggested that they would be more comfortable owning their own businesses so they could earn daily instead of monthly. Chomrong stated these two reasons for working at the shoe factory.
What have been the main lessons of this project and the stories of garment workers ?
There is hope in the face of adversity. Mothers and fathers looked towards providing for their children while younger adults spoke of improving the lives of their parents and siblings. Every person I interviewed could indicate their aspirations and dreams with the exception of one young woman.
Heng is originally from a rural province in Cambodia. She works in a shoe factory in Phnom Penh with her other sibling to support her parents. Heng does say her life is better now that she is employed at the shoe factory because she doesn’t have to perform the heavy manual labor of farming though without the ability to read and write she cannot achieve more than she has accomplished now. She’s only in her early twenties.
Inadequate access to education is a serious issue Cambodian’s face today. Even in urban centers, all children are not able to attend school.
What can people learn from the interviews?
Consumers have enormous purchasing power. The money we spend holds great implications and reaches far beyond our immediate lives.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of hands have touched the items we buy. They travel the globe before ending up in our hands. The 17,000 Mile Yoga Tank by Claire Whitcomb for Eileen Fisher is a great explanation of the complex manufacturing system companies employ today.
Wouldn’t it be ideal if all our purchases could support a living wage for the workers who created them?
Why are the interviews published in both the original language and the translation?
There are two main audiences for Primary Voice: international and local. It’s vital that workers, consumers, researchers and companies in China and Cambodia have access to the information on primaryvoice.org. The information Primary Voice generates should not exist in a vacuum.
The latest initiative is a new portal, + My Voice, where workers or organizations supporting them can upload stories that will be added to Primary Voice. I hope this will open the door for workers across the world to contribute their life stories to the discussion.