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Threads: Gender, Labor, and Power in the Global Apparel Industry

Threads: Gender, Labor, and Power in the Global Apparel Industry

by Jane L. Collins

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Americans have been shocked by media reports of the dismal working conditions in factories that make clothing for U.S. companies. But while well intentioned, many of these reports about child labor and sweatshop practices rely on stereotypes of how Third World factories operate, ignoring the complex economic dynamics driving the global apparel industry.



Americans have been shocked by media reports of the dismal working conditions in factories that make clothing for U.S. companies. But while well intentioned, many of these reports about child labor and sweatshop practices rely on stereotypes of how Third World factories operate, ignoring the complex economic dynamics driving the global apparel industry.

To dispel these misunderstandings, Jane L. Collins visited two very different apparel firms and their factories in the United States and Mexico. Moving from corporate headquarters to factory floors, her study traces the diverse ties that link First and Third World workers and managers, producers and consumers. Collins examines how the transnational economics of the apparel industry allow firms to relocate or subcontract their work anywhere in the world, making it much harder for garment workers in the United States or any other country to demand fair pay and humane working conditions.

Putting a human face on globalization, Threads shows not only how international trade affects local communities but also how workers can organize in this new environment to more effectively demand better treatment from their distant corporate employers.

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Threads: Gender, Labor, and Power in the Global Apparel Industry

By Jane Lou Collins

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 Jane Lou Collins
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226113728


If, as Marx defined them, commodities are the containers of hidden social relationships, certainly these social relationships are all the more concealed by the movement of production to the Third World.
Workers in a Global Labor Market

In the United States in the late 1990s and the early years of the twenty-first century, sweatshops were national news. The press reported that a factory in El Monte, California, making clothing for major corporations held immigrant Thai workers in slavery. It covered the arrest of a garment shop manager in New York City's Chinatown whose employees were laboring twenty-hour shifts, seven days a week. News stories from Seattle, New York, and Washington, D.C., showed streets filled with people protesting corporate profit derived from sweatshops. Student, labor, and religious groups organized boycotts of name brands associated with sweatshop conditions. The papers reported on sit-ins at administration buildings on college campuses, where students demanded that clothing bearing their schools' logos be produced under humane working conditions. Theabysmal workplaces and poor wages that drew so much attention were not just a problem of factories on far-off shores; they were occurring in the United States as well. Contradicting the industrialized world's belief that its economies were different, a proliferation of sweatshops in developing nations appeared to coincide with the increased number and declining conditions of such factories in the United States and Europe as well.

This trend, which linked the fate of workers in industrialized and developing countries, had been documented by several academic observers. As early as 1983, an anthropologist studying garment factories in Mexico noted that the expansion of the industry there paralleled "the resurgence of so-called sweatshops in metropolitan countries." Seventeen years later, the incidence of sweatshops in Los Angeles had grown to alarming proportions. In writing about the growth of sweated labor in that city, sociologists Edna Bonacich and Richard Appelbaum argued that it needed to be understood as part of the restructuring of global capitalism and as linked to the increased exploitation of workers in the Third World. These accounts stressed that the livelihoods of immigrant workers in U.S. cities, of rural workers in economically threatened factories of the southern United States, and of women and men laboring in export processing zones of developing nations were all linked to the fate of the same rapidly changing industries, an insight that challenges the boundaries of our time-honored concepts of "national" or "community" development.

That the growth of sweatshops in the United States and their growth abroad were interrelated was brought home to me in a vivid way as I conducted research for this book in a southern Virginia knitting mill in 1999. At a meeting of local 1994 of the garment workers' union UNITE, visibly angry workers described managers' attempts to increase the variety and complexity of tasks they were expected to perform under piece rate. They complained of ineffective grievance procedures and of union leaders so afraid of plant closure that they would not pressure management on the issue. One young African American man recalled the day in 1993 when 120 workers from the plant traveled to Washington, D.C. They visited members of Congress to encourage them to support legislation banning imports from sweatshops in the developing world. "We went to Washington to protest sweatshops," he said. "But third-floor knitting is a sweatshop now." Both the workers' collective trip to Washington and this man's assessment of his job situation reflected an understanding that the forces that caused firms to establish low-wage enclaves of garment production overseas were also undermining the conditions and security of jobs in Virginia.

Just one year later, a worker at a Mexican apparel factory told a similar story of intensification of the routines of work. She said that her employer, a Korean company that produced athletic apparel for some of the world's biggest brands, had raised workers' quotas from 3,000 to 3,600 pieces a week. Managers marked each worker's progress toward the quota on a graph above the person's station. The pressure to make these quotas while doing work that met quality standards was causing burnout within a very short time. This inspector said, "I could work here for perhaps two years before being exhausted, but the sewing operators get more pressure on them, so they can't stay as long." She explained the relation of the speedup to the global scope of the apparel labor market. "When people slow down or complain," she said, "the manager tells us that the workers in their Indonesian plant get paid much less and work harder."

In response to situations like these, many people have called for transnational organizing. Bruce Raynor, the president of UNITE, argues that "the connections between the international unions and American unions need to be close" and that "eventually you may have to organize and negotiate on a world-wide basis." William Greider, Kim Moody, and other popular writers have criticized analyses that pit the interests of older, more prosperous workers in the United States against those of newly recruited, poorer workers in the developing world, arguing that the fates of workers at the top and the bottom of the ladder are interrelated. Such organizing efforts are made difficult, however, by the real competition among groups of workers to secure and retain the rapidly shifting jobs of the "new economy." Transnational organizing that transcends protectionist impulses requires a clear understanding of the economic forces that sometimes link workers' interests and sometimes divide them, a willingness to consider long-run as well as short-run impacts, and a politically grounded analysis of the ways firms use and benefit from competition among workers.

Too often, calls for transnational labor solidarity treat workers as generic beings, without gender or ethnicity. When the newspapers report job loss in the United States, we tend to think of white men in hard hats receiving the pink slips. When we hear about the movement of jobs to Mexico or China, we tend to think of new industries with new male workers. In some cases this is a true picture, but as Jefferson Cowie has noted, the fact that women are often the first to be hired into assembly work and are often the most disposable workers in the chain of production "places them at the heart of the story of both industrialization and deindustrialization." Not only are women workers in the majority in the world's new export assembly zones, but ideologies of gender and ethnicity are crucial to the political strategies through which employers recruit and administer a low-cost, efficient, and orderly labor force. In the global labor market, women continue to be paid according to prevailing gender ideologies that assume they live with husbands or fathers who help support them. They continue to be exhorted to be "good girls" whose productivity sustains both the family and the nation. These ideologies and practices are central to the construction of the labor market and the organization of work wherever it takes place.

Apparel workers participate in an industry whose labor market has become interconnected--where workers in different parts of the world find themselves competing to perform the same operations for the same firms. Such a claim is not merely hyperbolic. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the vast majority of apparel firms could effectively locate, or subcontract, their production in just about any part of the world. As one industry executive told a trade press publication in 1999, "There's no difference in manufacturing in North Carolina or El Salvador: it's the same everything except the cost of labor."

Scholarly attempts to account for such global connection have been characterized by what Karel Williams has called "the slow death through a thousand qualifications about the global, the local and their interpenetration." The ink spilled on this problem is not just a compulsion to repeat platitudes, however; it is a reflection of the awkwardness of our paradigms and concepts when we try to grasp phenomena of broad scope as they play themselves out in local environments. There is no single framework that allows us to integrate an understanding of labor struggles as they unfold on the ground with the financial imperative for firms to deliver not just higher rates of return, but consistently rising share prices. As apparel firms seek what David Harvey has called their "spatial fix," they are looking for cheap and controllable labor, but they must incorporate that consideration within a complex equation that includes transport costs, speed of delivery, distribution channels, import rules, fashion cycles, branding strategies, profit levels, and share prices. For workers in the industry, the equation includes the structure of local labor markets, social reproductive needs and choices, gender roles, racial hierarchies, job characteristics, and the evaluation of those characteristics within locally evolved moral economies of work. The shop floor is where these two equations intersect. All of this takes place within the context of national and international governance and the institutions that coordinate labor and business.

The art critic and essayist John Berger has written about the problems of grappling with complex entities and our difficulty, in the late modern period, in telling any story sequentially as if it were simply unfolding in time. "This is because," he observed, "we are too aware of what is continually traversing the storyline laterally. That is to say, instead of being aware of a point as an infinitely small part of a straight line, we are aware of it as an infinitely small part of an infinite number of lines, as the center of a star of lines." The apparel labor market is at the center of a star of lines that traverse Wall Street and Madison Avenue, Mexico City, Ciudad Juarez, Djakarta, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. Choosing sites for investigation and telling meaningful stories about dynamics requires both a theory of global economic change and a grasp of the "commodity chain" through which clothing is produced and distributed. Studying it requires us to track the social relations of apparel production as these are restructured by local and global forces and enacted by employers and workers within their disparate and shared frameworks of meaning and power.

The Apparel Industry as Part of a Global Economy

Much social science writing about the global economy recalls the story of the blind men and the elephant. For whoever is investigating the trunk, it is all trunks, and for whoever has the tail, it is all tails. This is the point made by Walden Bello in his critique of Naomi Klein's No Logo. Klein's book is a fascinating expose of the ways that large firms use branded marketing strategies to create new markets, drive out competitors, and change the rules of the game in corporate competition. She also shows how "the branding of everything" changes consumer culture and factory working conditions. But as Bello points out, Klein's analysis does not hold true for every kind of manufacturing, and it is not an accurate portrayal of the global economy as a whole. While it does a good job of describing the dynamics of industries that sell consumer products and services, its insights do not apply to high technology and knowledge-intensive industries or to the production of inputs (like steel or oil) or machinery. More significantly, it ignores the role of finance and new forms of financial speculation in driving investment decisions.

A study of the apparel industry provides a very specific piece of the elephant, or the globalization picture. Like the consumer products industries Klein describes, apparel is what Gary Gereffi has called a buyer-driven commodity chain. This means that retailers and merchandisers play the leading role in setting up production networks. The dynamics of the apparel industry are different from those of producer-driven chains like automobiles, aircraft, and machinery. In these industries, the administrative headquarters of the producing firm organizes the production chain's backward and forward linkages. This is a significant distinction because it tells us where the greatest power lies within the industry and which actors are shaping trends.

Another distinctive feature of the apparel industry is its historically low levels of concentration. That is, it has been made up of many small firms that were often family owned. As late as 1987, the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment noted that the industry came close to representing a situation of "perfect competition" because of the large number of small companies it encompassed. This situation began to change in the 1990s as "concentration became a fact of life in the once fragmented . . . industry." Corporate mergers and an expansion of productive capacity through subcontracting fueled a trend toward fewer and larger firms over the decade.

One of the reasons the apparel industry has historically been congenial to small-scale entrepreneurs is that they did not need to make large investments to start a shop. Because garment work involves manipulating limp fabrics, its operations are not easily mechanized. Most of the recent technological developments in the industry have been in nonsewing operations such as design, cutting, warehouse management, and distribution. The sewing itself is not all that different from what it was one hundred years ago. Entrepreneurs wishing to set up an apparel factory have needed only to rent a space and buy sewing machines, which they could often obtain secondhand from larger firms. This has made the industry especially attractive to immigrant entrepreneurs, who could get started with only small loans and tap kin and community networks to recruit workers. The simplicity of its technology has meant that the industry remains very labor intensive. While labor costs average slightly less than one-third of total manufacturing expenditures, they are still the most significant production cost. It is this heavy reliance on labor as a factor of production that has driven apparel industry firms to seek cheap labor throughout the developing world.

Because of its labor intensity and low capital requirements, the apparel industry is one of the most broadly distributed across the globe, in both industrialized and developing nations. Counting only officially recognized workers, the industry employs 6 million people around the world, plus an additional 13 million in the manufacture of textiles. In the early 1980s, apparel and textiles taken together represented the largest manufacturing sector in the United States, employing 1.9 million workers, or 10 percent of the manufacturing workforce.

Within the United States, the apparel industry has the most diverse workforce of any manufacturing sector. It is the largest employer of women and minority workers. In 1984, women made up 81 percent of the apparel workforce, while 27 percent of workers in the industry were minorities. Noting that average hourly earnings in the garment industry were only about 60 percent of the average wage in manufacturing, one industry analyst has asked, "Is it more than coincidental that the manufacturing sector with the highest proportion of women and minority workers is the one with the lowest wages?" Not surprisingly, as U.S. apparel firms have shifted more and more operations out of the country, the loss of jobs has disproportionately affected women and minorities, as well as inhabitants of rural communities.

Apparel is the most important merchandise category for department stores, mass merchandisers, and specialty stores in the United States. As a consumer good, apparel is pervasive (everyone needs it), but it has what economists call "low demand elasticity." That is, as personal income rises, a smaller percentage of income is spent on basic clothing. Historically, the way the industry addressed this dilemma was to stimulate demand through fashion change. This process intensified and took new shape in the 1990s

23. For numbers of textile and apparel workers internationally, see Dicken, Global Shift, 283. For U.S. figures, see Ghadar, Davidson, and Feigenoff, U.S. Industrial Competitiveness, with the development of new forms of branded marketing. The emergence of huge branded marketers, who sold garments under high-visibility labels while subcontracting all or most of the production, has become one of the most important features of competition in the industry in the past two decades.

Apparel is thus not the whole elephant, but is a very important component of the global economy. It is a large industry that has always been broadly distributed across the globe, but the organization of its commodity chains (what is produced where, by whom, and for whom) has changed dramatically in recent years. It is an industry where control, if not ownership, has been wrested from small entrepreneurs and lies in the hands of a shrinking number of highly capitalized corporate giants. As a labor-inten-sive industry, it employs millions of workers under widely varying conditions. A large proportion of those employees are women and people of color throughout the world. The fate of many households is thus linked to its dynamics, and their health and well-being to the working conditions it provides.

The Politics of Production in a Globally Integrated Labor Market

Increasingly, the expansion of global labor markets has heightened a fundamental paradox: that firms and their employees are geographically constrained in different ways. Geographers have expressed the situation as follows: "Not all capitals are equally mobile, and not all working people are equally immobile, but in general capital is more mobile than labor. Locations that, for capital, are a temporary space for profitable production, are for workers and their friends and families places in which to live; places in which they have considerable individual and collective cultural investment; places to which they are often deeply attached." Or, "The spatial mobility of capital is pitted against the geographic solidarity of labor. Capital can make positive use, in a way labor cannot, of distance and differentiation."

A New York City financier has made the same point in a slightly different way: "Now capital has wings . . . capital can deal with twenty labor markets at once and pick and choose among them. Labor is fixed in one place. So power has shifted."

As the financier suggests, this differential geographic mobility has altered the power relation between employers and workers. It allows employers to scan the global landscape and to pick and choose workers at a wage level and under conditions that employers find amenable. But just as significantly, it creates a situation in which all workers, wherever they are located, know that their jobs can be moved at any moment. This gives rise to a form of labor control that Michael Burawoy has called hegemonic despotism. He defines hegemonic despotism as a situation where the "arbitrary tyranny of the overseer over the individual worker" is replaced by the "'rational' tyranny of capital mobility over the collective worker.. . . The fear of being fired is replaced by the fear of capital flight, plant closure, transfer of operations and plant disinvestment." The ability to move their production operations allows firms to pit workers in different locations against each other, dampening wage negotiations, undermining unionization, and fostering concessionary bargaining in which employees must give up benefits in order to retain their jobs.

A report prepared for the U.S. Trade Deficit Review Commission in 2000, which examined a random sample of over four hundred union certification votes conducted in 1998-99, provides an extraordinary example of how this works. According to this survey, more than half of all employers threatened to shut down operations during the period preceding the vote. In easily mobile industries such as apparel, threats occurred in 100 percent of cases. Not surprisingly, the success of certification campaigns was significantly lower in plants where closure was threatened.

Many economic policymakers have commented approvingly on the role of worker insecurity in reducing wage demands. In 1997, U.S. Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan linked the nation's "sustainable economic expansion" to "atypical restraint on compensation increases [that] appears to be mainly the consequence of greater worker insecurity." A fellow Federal Reserve Board member, Laurence H. Meyer, elaborated: "According to this theory, corporate restructuring, globalization and technological change have increased workers' insecurity about their jobs. As a result, workers have been willing to accept some restraint on real wages in order to increase their prospects of remaining employed."

Both of these quotations point to the causal link between corporate mobility and workers' unwillingness or inability to fight for increased wages. The result, of course, was that the real wages of American workers remained stagnant or declined through the long economic expansion of the 1990s.

Hegemonic despotism is an important part of what it means to be a worker in a global labor market, but it is not the whole story. We do not yet fully understand what participating in such a geographically dispersed "community" of workers entails. We have good accounts of dislocation and economic harm to communities that lose jobs and of the ways corporate mobility undermines union movements. We have more than two decades' worth of ethnographies of factory work in new zones of capitalist investment. But conflicts of interest and intersections of interest among workers in different locations and at different points along the commodity chain remain unclear. As Chandra Talpade Mohanty has argued, much of this writing presents the story of "oppressed Third World woman workers" in a stereotyped way while ignoring the potential for "imagined community" and political alliance among First World and Third World women.

The firms that relocate or subcontract their production do not approach the developing world as a homogeneous sea of cheap labor but seek to take advantage of many types of variability across localities. The specific attributes of places and their people matter to multinational corporations. As David Harvey has noted, "The free flow of capital across the surface of the globe . . . places strong emphasis upon the particular qualities of the spaces to which that capital might be attracted. The shrinkage of space that brings diverse communities across the globe into competition with each other implies . . . a heightened sense of awareness of what makes a place special and gives it a competitive advantage."

Firms that move their operations engage in "regime shopping" for advantages in tax law, incentives, and environmental and labor regulation. They may have specific requirements for infrastructure and transport, or they may be primarily concerned with access to local markets. At the same time, firms seek out specific kinds of labor pools whose relevant characteristics include wage levels, but also skills, turnover levels, the overall availability of labor, unionization, and worker militancy. Firms perceive the gender or ethnic composition of the workforce to be relevant to these other features and thus may frame their quest for labor in gendered or racial-ethnic terms. Managers' perceptions of an appropriate fit between type of worker and kind of work may contradict existing local beliefs, opening new possibilities for labor market participation or, alternatively, engendering resistance. At other times, a firm's perceptions of a properly structured labor force may correspond to local custom and thus reinforce and deepen existing divisions of labor.

As firms locate and "localize" their operations in new parts of the world, corporate strategies come in contact with the livelihood strategies of families and individuals. As firms experience pressures to obtain profit levels predetermined by Wall Street and to produce garments whose quality and timeliness build a brand image developed on Madison Avenue, they construct labor practices exercised upon women and men whose needs and desires are determined in different spheres. Labor recruitment and control thus become the site of negotiation and struggle, as midlevel managers seek to implement policies and procedures, working through local institutions and cultures. In this way "the production of material goods is bound up with the making of new social relations and with the forging of new meanings with regard to those relations." It entails, as Burawoy reminds us, a fragile balance between control and consent.

Labor markets are deeply rooted in local institutions and practices. The labor contract is a social contract, which contains tacit expectations and is based on trust. Employment relations are never simply market transactions; workers and employers struggle over the terms and conditions of labor. They draw on rhetorical strategies, habits, and traditions that are familiar to both groups, if not endorsed by them. They forge provisional agreements about what constitutes justice, what is a fair distribution of rewards and efforts, and how the parties should behave toward one another. These moral economies of the workplace provide the grounds on which one group makes claims on another and the language for framing those claims. They are not closed and immutable systems but open, communicative frameworks susceptible to innovations of many kinds.

But what happens to moral economies and their rhetorical frameworks when the labor market in question becomes global? In situations where employers and workers share a history and culture, tacit expectations can often remain unarticulated. But in situations of transnational investment, assumptions about labor practices must be confronted from the very beginning. Because apparel firms often seek out "greenfields" locations, where workers have little or no labor market experience, the norms and practices of the workplace have little historical precedent and must be actively constructed. Many firms prefer to employ workers with fewer labor market options and little exposure to organizing traditions. As one Mexican manager expressed it, "entre mas antiguas, mas inconformes son" (the more experienced they are, the less compliant).

Feminist ethnographers have produced many accounts of the initial encounters between multinational firms and young women entering the labor market in export processing zones of the developing world. These authors have documented the strategies that firms instituted, beginning in the 1970s, of recruiting mostly young, unmarried women without children and firing them when they married, gave birth, or simply reached a certain age. They described the ways young women found wage work liberating, opening new possibilities for autonomy and self-sufficiency; the ways they found it difficult and demeaning; and their strategies for gaining new skills and autonomy within the factories. Ethnographers found resistance in unexpected places, such as episodes of "spirit possession," struggles over meals and holidays, or support for female managers. They also traced important shifts in both managerial strategies and workers' responses over time. As more and more companies moved into export processing zones, labor markets tightened and firms found it necessary to diversify their workforces by hiring men as well as married women with children. Of equal importance, as workers in these regions gained labor market experience, they became both more skilled at their jobs and more savvy about the ways they could exercise their collective power.

The larger rhetorical battles that accompany globalization shape these site-specific struggles for recognition, rights, and remuneration in the workplace. Within this broader frame, neoliberal discourses argue that poor working conditions in industries like apparel can be tolerated because they are a stepping-stone to something better; they are a rung on the ladder of development. Labor-intensive industries tap the only resource that many poor nations have--their "cheap" labor. They generate economic growth that will eventually trickle down to all sectors of society. According to this view, labor conditions will naturally improve over time as a result of economic growth. The problem for poor nations is that they are getting "[not] too much globalization, but too little"; and for this reason, when student groups, unions, and churches wage campaigns against sweatshops, they are harming the very people they intend to help.

The "global justice" or "antiglobalization" critiques of this perspective argue that the protection of labor and the environment cannot be left to market forces. They echo Karl Polanyi's fear that labor markets, left to their own devices, will thoroughly deplete workers and destroy the social basis through which labor is reproduced.49These critics argue that neoliberal policies force workers in different parts of the world to compete based on how little they demand--on who will work longer hours, for less pay, with fewest health and safety rules and the least in the way of job security and provision for times of sickness and old age. Often glossed as "the race to the bottom," this kind of competition pushes the social reproductive needs of workers to their lowest limit and is not sustainable in any long run. It undermines the kinds of achievements in education and health that form a strong basis for democratic institutions. Proponents of this view point out that improved labor conditions did not emerge simply as a result of economic growth in the industrialized countries. Rather, workers "fought their way out--marched for economic justice, built unions, voted and finally forced the Gilded Age to become the New Deal."

These discourses draw stark contrasts, and the press frequently presents their social visions in all-or-nothing terms. Yet within each camp practitioners work to craft new social arrangements that are more complex than the arguments would allow. Globalization critics experiment with "fair trade" arrangements, investing their own capital to set up socially responsible market relations. Neoliberal gurus like George Soros and dyed-in-the-wool economists like Jagdish Bhagwati argue that globalization needs regulation and redistributive policies to mitigate its effects and to reconcile market forces with social and economic goals.

One of the central lessons that can be drawn from the case studies presented in this book is that just and humane working conditions do not emerge automatically as a by-product of economic growth or from the production of "advanced" goods. If global production arrangements are to be fair, they will have to be made fair, either through mindful social regulation or as a result of the same kinds of social struggle that brought labor rules and collective bargaining to the industrialized nations.


Excerpted from Threads: Gender, Labor, and Power in the Global Apparel Industry by Jane Lou Collins Copyright © 2003 by Jane Lou Collins. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Jane L. Collins is a professor of rural sociology and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is the author of Unseasonal Migrations: The Effects of Rural Labor Scarcity in Peru and coauthor of Reading National Geographic, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press.

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