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KAI RYSSDAL: When you strip away all the big moving parts of international trade, what you have left is the lowest common denominator. One single person trying to make a living.
Today, as we continue our monthly series, Working, the global textile industry. You probably have a pretty good idea how a T-shirt gets made. How the cotton’s grown in one place and gets turned into thread somewhere else. How it’s woven and dyed and cut and stitched wherever labor is cheapest. The work is monotonous. The competition is brutal. Which makes it hard to imagine why anyone would choose to get into the business.
Jon Miller went to Lima, Peru to bring us the story of one man who did.
JON MILLER: When we first started thinking about doing profiles of workers in the global economy, the first person who popped into my head was Marco Moreno. I knew him ’cause he was the husband of Rosa, who was our maid when we lived in Lima. Here was a guy with no advantages whatsoever, working in a succession of factory jobs, but who was convinced that with a combination of seriousness and willpower and family solidarity he was gonna make it. His name, his brand, was going to be famous. So when I heard he was opening his own factory, I had to go check it out.
MARCO (translation): This is going to be a plant for the production of garments, mainly cotton. Today we’re installing the lights, hanging them from the ceiling.
The factory is actually the ground floor of his aunt’s house. Just about everyone here today is family — the tile guy, the painter, the electrician. And that’s the way it’s gonna stay — a family business.
MARCO (translation): I am the legal representativie of the company. The production part is my brother Dany. My brother Peter is going to be in charge of sales and relationships with the clients. Erik, the second oldest, is going to be in charge of design, purchasing, and logistics.
When I first met Marco about 10 years ago he and his brothers had four sewing machines. That business failed. This time they pooled their savings and bought $30,000 worth of equipment. And they got a friend to put in $60,000 more in cash.
MARCO (translation): This week we’re planning to bring in 21 machines, so in two years we’ll be able to get our capital back.
That is, if everything goes according to plan — if the brothers get contracts, if they run at capacity, if they don’t get stuck just making T-shirts. And even then they still stand to clear less than $100 a month on top of their wages. To me, it seems like a huge risk for a tiny payoff. I keep asking Marco if he’s afraid.
MARCO (translation): Afraid, no. You can be afraid of the unknown. But something like this, that depends totally on us? You can’t be afraid of that.
I know Marco pretty well, and honestly, it’s hard to understand where all the confidence comes from. ‘Cause for him and Rosa and their daughter Ivanna, the last few years have been pretty awful. Starting when a neighbor broke into their apartment.
ROSA (translation): I was working as a housemaid, and Marco was working a temporary job, and Ivanna was alone and she was raped. She was 11, going on 12 years old. The boy had a key. He came in at 11 at night and took advantage of her. As parents we were destroyed.
Then Marco was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a form of cancer.
MARCO (translation): To have an illness of that magnitude — it hits you hard. But it also makes you look at life in a different way. I mean, I’ve never been afraid of death. But I am afraid of leaving my family to fend for themselves.
The cancer’s in remission, and Marco says he feels strong enough for what’s next.
Rosa still works days as a maid. At night she sells clothing and costume jewelry in a local market. She loves the idea that she and Marco are going to be bosses.
ROSA (translation): Marco and me, we both come from very humble backgrounds. My mother doesn’t know how to read or write, so I never had a good education. But I learned how to work, and I know it’s work that’s going to take us forward.
But not, she says, at the expense of the people who work for them.
ROSA (translation): Every day I’m pushing Marco to do things according to the law, insisting that he and his brothers respect the rights of every worker.
It occurs to me that respect may be the single biggest reason why Marco is starting his own business. He tells me how at one factory he used to have the same job as a guy with an engineering degree.
MARCO (translation): The engineer who was working there put out 8,000 garments a week. I put out 11,000, 12,000. But they paid me half.
The next weekend we’re back at the workshop when a white truck pulls up. Guys lug in box after box of Chinese sewing machines, then assemble them in place.
I’m trying to stay out of the way, and I’m also trying to figure out how on earth these guys can possibly compete with giant factories in India or China. Brother Dany tells me: quality and efficiency. Marco says: family.
MARCO (translation): I think our advantage is the question of trust. To have someone who’s going to back you up completely. When something goes wrong, we’ll fix it together.
By late afternoon the place looks like an honest-to-goodness garment factory, and Marco and his brothers and a few of their soon-to-be employees raise plastic glasses of cheap champagne.
This toast is to celebrate the opening of our new workshop, Marco says. Now the real work starts. And in a sudden lapse of judgment, he names me the honorary patron of the enterprise.
That was all about a year ago. Looking for an update, I get through to Marco on Skype.
MILLER: Alo, Marco!
MARCO: Si, Mister Jon, buenas noches!
MILLER: Como estas?
MARCO: Calladas, terminando el dia…
I ask him about the business and he tells me that basically everything that could go wrong did. They couldn’t find skilled workers. They trusted some people they shouldn’t have trusted. The big blow was actually a huge order — 80,000 pieces. For a tiny shop it was just too much. They shut down after eight months, put the sewing machines in storage.
But Marco says it’s been a good year. He got a job at a big company that produces for Adidas. He’s earning three times what he was earning before, and working one-on-one with major clients. He and Rosa moved into a bigger place, where Ivanna, at 16, finally has her own room. Marco’s been so busy that he hasn’t even thought about the cancer.
MARCO (translation): The general objective hasn’t changed — to have our own company, our own brand. That’s not just my dream, but the dream of my father, my mother, everyone. I started out as a little mouse, and I don’t think I’ve become a hippopotamus. But I’m not finished with this. I mean, you can’t give up on something you believe in.
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