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Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops

Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops

by Robert Ross

ISBN: 9780472030224

Publisher University of Michigan Press

Published in Business & Money/Human Resources, Politics & Social Sciences/Sociology

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Sample Chapter


Chapter One

What Is a Sweatshop?

Images in the Wrong Place

A young girl looks into the camera, her dark eyes wide, her posture a bit uncertain, her hands holding the pieces of clothing she is about to push toward a sewing machine needle. She is Latina, her hair dark, her features vaguely Indian. Cara Metz's photo of an underage girl in a Brooklyn sweatshop is a haunting image of the new sweatshops in North America (Metz 2001). This girl's gaze, without a friendly smile for the camera but with her body awkwardly posed for its sake, speaks to us, as if from the beginning of the century. From that time, we vaguely recall Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives (1890). The women in their dark, small Lower East Side room of New York's Manhattan are "Sewing and Starving in an Elizabeth Street Attic," as depicted in one of Riis's photographs.

There is something wrong in this juxtaposition. Sweatshops are the past, or they are elsewhere: they are not us, not now. In the United States, as in Europe and Asia, most audiences assume that an address about the contemporary sweatshop problem will be about some place other than the United States. Sometime in 1890 or 1911 in the United States, perhaps, yes, in Jacob Riis's time, but not now. Extreme labor abuse must be in Central America, perhaps, or China. My neighbors in a quiet village at the very edge of metropolitan eastern Massachusetts, many employed in computer-related businesses, are at first surprised when they learn that a "sweatshop book" is going to start with conditions in the United States. Their confusion is understandable. The United States is a rich nation, perhaps the most affluent in the world. We are not supposed to have sweatshops, places of work so bad that they remind us of the bad old days that we were supposed to have left behind. We have improved so much.

Understanding our society as a place where the bad old days of labor exploitation and injustice are over sustains our positive sense of our march through history. It also allows those of us who are employed and adequately fed to feel proud of our own accomplishments. The poor, many think, have only themselves and their self-inflicted joblessness to blame (Wilson 1996, 159-64). Yet, a combination of political, economic, and social trends has come together to recreate working conditions that are nearly as bad as those of the early twentieth century. Sweatshops are back, and they are right here.

Many people will object that to be exploited in the United States may still leave a worker better off than he or she might be elsewhere. Comparative and competitive suffering, what one writer termed "the oppression sweepstakes"(Leo 1995), is not a pretty game, nor fruitful, nor honorable. Does a person deemed poor in America eat better than a person starving in the Horn of Africa? (Yes, but his or her diet and life circumstance will lead to premature death, more frequent chronic illness, and more serious acute episodes of illness [See Daniels, Kennedy, and Kawachi 2000; FRAC 2001].) Does a child born in one of the poorest communities in New York have a better chance of survival than the average child in El Salvador? (Perhaps not; see Ross and Trachte [1990], who found that 1980 infant mortality rates in the poor sections of New York were comparable to third world rates of death of those below one year of age.) Do American sewing machine operators in New York or Los Angeles have more electronic things, or stuff, and live in better housing than the shanty dwellers of Nicaragua or the factory dorm residents in China? Yes, most probably, but they may also be further from the average living circumstance of people in their society. Poor people in the United States, including the working poor, may be more deprived relative to the standards of decency that we have set ourselves than workers elsewhere in relation to their own societies. As many have noted, in addition, the United States has more inequality and deeper poverty than the other rich nations (see, e.g., Smeeding and Rainwater 2001).

This chapter will discuss the meaning of the term sweatshop, paying close attention to the United States and its history, and it will put the term in a global context as well. My goal is to give this highly charged word an objective meaning, one that goes beyond expressing disapproval or standing as a colorful metaphor for "lousy work." The larger context is the apparel industry worldwide. The "rag trade" merits this attention for historical, cultural, and economic reasons. Historically and culturally, English language speakers have associated the term sweatshop with clothing manufacture from the time the phrase was widely understood and almost from the beginning of the ready-to-wear clothing industry.

In North America garment making is closely associated with the idea of the sweatshop-in part, as we shall see in the next chapter, because of the particular history of triumphs and tragedies in New York, the world's largest media market for most of the last century. In economic terms the apparel industry is among the world's largest manufacturing industries and is among those very few industries where extreme exploitation of vulnerable labor is central to the labor process and to the chain of profit making.

There are other industries in which the extremes of exploitation approach those of the rag trade. In the United States some segments of the restaurant industry, as frequently as the apparel industry, meet the (U.S.-based) formal criteria of "multiple labor law violator" (U.S. GAO 1989). Restaurants, however, do not make products that enter into world trade: by definition, they are not part of the problem of global labor standards, a central concern of this book. The human and labor rights violations of agribusiness and its use of migrant labor are somewhat notorious but also outside the scope of this work. Nonetheless, in common with labor abuse in the apparel industry, labor law reform and labor standards enforcement would be important steps to improve conditions in these industries. But that gets ahead of the story; for now we leave aside in this book the restaurant and agricultural industries.

Footwear production in the developing world has been the focus of much antisweatshop agitation and concern-especially in regard to Nike, whose contractors often engage in exploitative labor practices (Connor 2001, 2002). In many countries data from footwear production are combined with textile and apparel data. Therefore, information about this industry is sprinkled throughout this book. When data do distinguish footwear from apparel workers, however, it usually shows an advantage to footwear workers. The reasons are easy to understand. Footwear products are, on the whole, more expensive and are made with more machinery; they are more "capital intensive." There are hardly any stages of footwear production that can be regularly done by workers at home. So the factory workers hardly ever compete with unregulated (and more frequently exploited) homeworkers.

Another industry that has been the focus of charges of labor abuse is the toy industry, especially in China, where up to 70 percent of the world's toys are made (Bezlova 2002; Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee 2003). As is true in the apparel industry, toy making suffers from the relative weakness of contractors who make toys for name brands and the additional weakness of the workers, who are often inexperienced. Outside of China, toy industry workers in factories may compete with homeworkers, especially for the assembly of plastic parts. Much of the global situation of toy workers is therefore similar to apparel workers, and so are the forces that impoverish them. Yet there are very few workers in the U.S. toy industry (fewer than twenty-five thousand by the end of 2002), and the logic of our inquiry is to explain how an industry and its workers are enmeshed in global capitalism. In the interest of clarity and relevance, therefore, the focus of this work is on the apparel industry. Not only does this make our story compact, but it focuses attention on the industry most likely, of all the world's globalized export industries, to systematically incorporate sweatshop labor in its products.

Eleven million people worldwide made clothes in 1998; when combined with textile and footwear workers, the total was over 29 million workers worldwide (29,387,000; see ILO 2000, 14-22).

The Sweated Trades

Understanding what a sweatshop is requires a brief look at history and the evolution of the language used to describe industrial conditions.

Sweatshop: A First Definition

The idea of the sweated trades reached its modern form in the mid-nineteenth century in Britain (MacLean 1903). By the late Victorian period there had been repeated investigations of them, and a general-somewhat impressionistic-definition emerged. In the first instance, those who were "sweated" were the workers, the direct producers, while those who extracted their labor were the "sweaters," the employers or direct purchasers of their work. Charles Booth found in the sweated trades the common threads of "overcrowding, irregular hours, low pay; periods of terrible strain, overtaxing the powers and exhausting the vital forces" (Booth 1902, cited in Bythell 1978, 11). The quasi-official definition came from an otherwise unsuccessful House of Lords inquiry. Sweating was

no particular method of remuneration, no particular form of industrial organization, but certain conditions of employment, viz., unusually low rates of wages, excessive hours of labour, and unsanitary workplaces. (emphasis mine; cited in MacLean 1903, 290; see also Bythell 1978, 232)

The conditions of the sweated trades were (and are), in Britain and America, particularly associated with a certain industrial organization. The sweated trades were those branches of industry characterized by middleman contractors standing between the direct producers and the commercial customers who bought the product, coordinated the various vendor contractors, and then sold the commodity to the public. Then, as now, the commercial buyer, usually the larger, more powerful partner in the chain of commodity production, managed to evade legal and public accountability for the conditions of the laborers by insisting that these were the responsibility of the middleman contractor.

The contractor function may itself be subdivided among subcontractors-for example, when a shop contracts to sew already cut clothing, the owner may subcontract any part of the sewing to another shop or some part of the process, such as embroidery, if it is required, or button sewing. Again, the "sweater" in the term sweatshop was not necessarily she who sweats but rather he who makes others sweat. In Britain, before the explosive growth of the ready-to-wear clothing industry at the end of the nineteenth century, the sweated trades might have connoted furniture making, shoe and boot making, spinning and weaving, and other trades. Bythell (1978) adds nail and chain making to this list. These were the trades in which workers toiled at home at the behest of contractors, who commissioned and then collected the "outwork" and delivered it to jobbers. Then, as now, the labor-intensive sweated trades were typically paid a "piece rate"-for each unit of work they performed rather than by the hour. In the apparel industry the piece rate may be so many cents per collar sewn to the yoke of a shirt or per sleeves sewn to a body. The homeworkers, who were always paid a piece rate, were so dispersed as to make it impossible to regulate wages and conditions even if the political will to do so had been present.

Industrial homeworkers, or "outworkers," were understood to be an alternative-a less costly one-to factory labor. MacLean (1903, 290) traces the usage to "the troublous times" in England in 1847-48, "when the working people were in the direst straits and commenced taking work home for a mere pittance rather than sit quietly waiting starvation." Her language is instructive in the context of today's discussion of the labor conditions in developing nations. MacLean refers to a choice workers in sweatshops make-and those who give "two cheers" for today's sweatshops often emphasize the idea of choice (Kristof and WuDunn 2000). MacLean states it clearly: the choice to work for a pittance is an alternative to "sit ... waiting starvation" (290). When the alternative is starvation, the decision to work under abusive conditions is closer to coercion than choice-though it may be rational to choose life over starvation.

The workers drawn to the growing ready-to-wear clothing industry from 1870 to 1900 were similar and similarly driven in Britain and America-indeed, the similarities are very close, down to the ethnicities of the workers, and one history could be another. In both places, Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe concentrated in poor neighborhoods and disproportionately in the burgeoning ready-to-wear clothing industry. In both London and New York immigrant Jews were both workers and bosses. Most decisively, in both cities in the rapidly expanding apparel business, especially in its largest and most volatile branch, fashion-sensitive women's outerwear production was the site of the contractor sweating system (Garnett 1988).

The earliest markets for ready-to-wear clothing in the United States were those in which the consumer had no woman who could sew his clothes-slaves and sailors. The decisive factor in the creation of a mass market for ready-to-wear clothing, however, was relative population growth in cities-urbanization. Urbanization involved the transformation of the nation from one characterized by rural households that made their own clothes to urban and rural households that bought ready-made clothes.

The concentration of wageworkers in physically compact urban areas created the possibility of a market for ready-to-wear clothes. The technology of cutting and sewing then made the exploitation of this market profitable and efficient. In the 1860s women's cloaks began to be made in long production runs. In the 1880s suits were added, and then in the 1890s dresses and "waists" began to be made. At the end of the Civil War, there were, according to Best (1919, 777), about six thousand wage earners in women's clothing production; by 1919 there were about two hundred thousand. New York City was the titan of the industry, with over 70 percent of its value produced there and over 50 percent of its labor force working there.

Although simplified histories of the process of industrialization often contrast domestic handwork with factory manufacture, the sweating system and outwork grew along with the ready-to-wear industry (Bythell 1978; Schmiechen 1984). Schmiechen estimated the number of clothing outworkers in London in 1901 at 125,000-90,000 (1984, 283). The new technology of clothing production-band-saw cutting (1860) and the Singer sewing machine (1851)-allowed unskilled workers to increase their productivity and to work at home. This "decentralized mode of production," Schmiechen notes,

was a distinct financial advantage to the employer because it made up for the lack of capital and space and allowed the employer to expand production without expanding facilities. (1984, 283)

The use of the term sweatshop and the associated sweated trades came to be highly associated with the system in which a manufacturer used an agent to assign or otherwise distribute work to workers laboring in their homes, producing relatively low-value goods and paying at a piece rate. The sweatshop itself was, at the turn of the century, the sweater's own home, where he might assemble workers to do work for which he had contracted to a manufacturer. So Jacob Riis's early pictures of "sweaters" were of multiple adults, including men, working in domestic rooms, but not necessarily members of the same family. Later, the word sweatshop migrated to crowded and dangerous-and low-paying-workshops.

The link between sweated working conditions and outwork, outsourcing, or homework consists of a number of independently operating factors. In the first instance the homeworker is isolated and usually desperate for work. MacLean wrote in 1903 (about the 1840s) that workers took such jobs "for a pittance" because they were in danger of starvation. Spurred by the whip of penury, workers with few choices will take unfair conditions of work to survive. Thus, the homeworker is subject to (as is the factory wage worker who earns but a pittance) a strategic game in which he or she has few choices but the employer has many.

(Continues...)

Excerpted from "Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops" by Robert Ross. Copyright © 0 by Robert Ross. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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