Shoppers everywhere have seen (and maybe even bought) the counterfeit shoes, bags, and clothing that line the walls of stalls along Canal Street
in New York City or are hawked by vendors in nearly any major city in America. But, aside from worrying about their dubious quality, few of us stop to think about the real cost of those bogus goods — namely, how it affects the workers who make them.
And, contrary to the stereotype many of us have, these knockoffs aren't just made in China anymore. Counterfeiting shoes, clothes, and bags is a billion-dollar industry on the rise
, and those products can come from all around the globe, including from Chinese-owned factories in Africa.
Since 2003, China has invested
at least 70 percent of its foreign direct investment into African nations. Back home, China has been universally applauded for reversing the story of hardship in its own nation as a result of its historic economic growth, which has lifted 500 million people out of poverty
. And abroad, China is also responsible for helping to change the narrative throughout Africa with the roads, hospitals, schools, and manufacturing jobs that Chinese investment has created.
This past August, China and the East African nation of Tanzania signed a deal called the China Africa Development Fund
. The agreement promises to allow more than 100 Chinese investors to invest directly in Tanzania’s manufacturing industry, purportedly creating jobs and dismantling poverty. And though many in Tanzania are eager to see the nation jump-start its economy, China’s labor practices have raised some serious red flags.
To find out more, I traveled to a Chinese-owned factory outside Tanzania's capital, Dar es Salaam, on a bright Sunday afternoon in August. I drove up to the long wall that fenced off the factories from the otherwise bare road. It was only when Chinese factory owner and manager Fei Lin opened a door along the wall of LMFLY Trading Corporation Ltd. that an assortment of buildings came into full view. My curiosity pushed me to ask Lin for a tour.
Ahead, rarely seen photos from inside one of Tanzania's counterfeit shoe sweatshops. Photo caption: Male workers, some younger than 18, sit on the floor behind a pile of shoes. Some of the workers at LMFLY's factory were too young to work legally.
Author's note: Reporting for this story was made possible by the International Women's Media Foundation African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.