Slaves to Fashion
Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops
Publication Year: 2004
Published by: University of Michigan Press
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This project began during one sabbatical leave and was substantially finished during another. Clark University granted the sabbatical, and a Clark faculty development grant helped me comb the files at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations library. I am grateful, but in truth the work was accomplished despite the duties I have gladly shouldered at Clark University.
Introduction: Sweatshops Are Where Hearts Starve
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It is the afternoon of Passover in 1998. Our home is busy with preparations as the feast that celebrates the liberation of Hebrew slaves is nearing readiness. Our guests have not yet arrived, and I am listening to a tape that I plan to play as people arrive. It is a recording of Judy Collins singing a poemâwritten in 1911 to celebrate women workers on strikeââBread and Roses.â I want to play this...
Part 1: The Fall and Rise of Sweatshops in the United States
Chapter 1: What Is a Sweatshop?
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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 Metzâs photo of an underage girl in a Brooklyn sweatshop is a haunting image of the new sweatshops in North America (Metz 2001). This girlâs gaze,...
Appendix 1: Estimating the Number of Sweatshop Workers in the United States in 2000
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Chapter 2: Memory of Strike and Fire
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In the fall of 1909 young women sewing machine operatorsââgirlsâ they were called, and many were but fourteen or fifteenâbegan a strike against two New York City garment firms. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company and Leisorsonâs were two among the very large âinsideâ or factory-based manufacturers. Almost two years later a â¹re at the Triangle Factory would sear American memory, forever joining...
Chapter 3: The Decline of Sweatshops in the United States
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The red silk bargain dress in the shop window is a danger signal. It is a warning of the return of the sweatshop, a challenge to us all to reinforce the gains we have made in our long and difficult progress toward a civilized industrial order. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, 1933 As Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, the working class of the United States was becoming poorer and more desperate.
Chapter 4: The Era of Decency and the Return of the Sweatshop
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With World War II came full employment. The apparel industry turned decisively toward factory employment as uniforms made up a larger fraction of its production and womenâs styles were simplified and limited by wartime restrictions on fabric use. Both of these factors would have reduced sweatshop conditions, but in addition there were now the homework bans, the restrictions on child labor,...
Part 2: Explaining the Rise of the New Sweatshops
When Clara Lemlich and her sisters struck in 1909, the brutal conditions they faced were a result of competition only barely restrained by law. The miserable conditions in the apparel industry were probably worse than average for American or, for that matter, London and Parisian workers, but they were produced as well by a general weakness on the part of workers. The legal framework of the...
Chapter 5: Global Capitalism and the Race to the Bottom in the Production of Our Clothes
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Early in the era of global capitalism Raymond Vernon (1979) used the term global scanning to convey the process by which the large multinational corporations systematically searched the globe for the most propitious sites on which to place their production facilities and to target their sales efforts. Ross and Trachte adopted this concept when they wrote in 1990: The global firm . . . is a design for survival under...
Chapter 6: Retail Chains: The Eight-Hundred-Pound Gorillas of the World Trade in Clothing
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The global commodity chain of the apparel industry consists of fiber production, textile manufacture, design, cutting, sewing, marketing, and retail (see, e.g., Gereffi 1994; Appelbaum and Gereffi 1994). These stages in the production process may be, and in apparel typically are, disaggregated over space (Ross and Trachte 1990). The most powerful actors in the global commodity chain of the...
Chapter 7: Firing Guard Dogs and Hiring Foxes
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Among the thousands of small contractor shops where workers sew clothingâ in New York, Los Angeles, New Jersey, and around the United Statesâsix out of every ten persistently break the labor laws by failing to pay minimum wages or overtime.Â¹ Over the last three decades, though, the government has gradually undertaken unilateral disarmament in the fight against labor lawbreakers.
Chapter 8: Immigrants and Imports
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When most people think about sweatshops in the apparel business, they think of immigrants. Early in the twentieth century it was Jewish and Italian immigrants who toiled in tenements and dangerous factories and struggled to form unions to protect their livelihoods. Following the Jews and Italians in New York and Los Angeles, still in the period when union protection was meaningful,...
Chapter 9: Union Busting and the Global Runaway Shop
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If the commandment that instructs people to observe a day of rest for the Sabbath is the first labor law, employersâ desire to evade organized workers is probably about as old. In our times, modern capitalism has, after all, at least an aspect of a brutally simple strategic game. The employer wants more work for less cost; the worker wants more pay, easier work, and safe and dignified conditions.
Chapter 10: Framing Immigrants, Humiliating Big Shots: Mass Media and the Sweatshop Issue
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The reemergence of sweatshops in the American apparel industry wasâ eventuallyâaccompanied by high-profile mass media coverage of the extreme exploitation of workers. The main subjects of print media stories have been contractors for American firms abroad. Domestic sweatshop reporting has also had an âexternalizingâ tendency by focusing on the immigrant status of the exploited workers.
Conclusion to Part 2: Producing Sweatshops in the United States
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High, legal immigration is neither necessary nor sufficient for sweatshop appearance. This is shown by the period of the 1950s and 1960s in New York City. First, Puerto Ricans rapidly replaced Jews, Italians, and Blacks in the apparel industry, but though they filled the lower-wage sections of the business, standards did not drop below legal levels. Average wages in the industry were still...
Part 3: Movements and Policies
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The rise of the new sweatshops in the United States paralleled the rise of global commodity chains supplying the rich countries with apparel. In part this was the result of other aspects of U.S. foreign policy. For example, the Reagan administrationâs commitment to suppressing leftist movements and left-wing elected governments in the Western Hemisphere in the 1980s caused it...
Chapter 11: Combating Sweatshops from the Grass Roots
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In January 1999 a new student movement announced itself on the campuses of American universities. It began a campaign for a âsweat-free campusâ and announced itself in dramatic fashionâby occupying over the next four months administration buildings on seven campusesâ Duke (January 29), Georgetown (February 5), Wisconsin (February 8), Michigan (March 17), Fairfield...
Chapter 12: Solidarity North and South: Reframing International Labor Rights
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When the advocates of unrestrained global capitalism attack regulations against labor abuse, they usually refer to economic growth as the curative for long hours and low pay (e.g., Kristof and WuDunn 2000). Thinking about the history of May Day observances shows how closely it is related to the story of sweatshops and efforts to control the labor abuses they signify. The story of May Day...
Chapter 13: Ascending a Ladder of Effective Antisweatshop Policy
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When Maria Echaveste and Robert Reich considered how they might advance the cause of low-wage workers, they calculated that they were not going to be able to get enough budget authority to make a big difference through enforcement alone (Echaveste 2002).
Chapter 14: Three Pillars of Decency
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Some policies are more powerful or strategic than others. The more permanent and far-reaching solutions to labor abuse are located at the global levelâwhere the politics are so complicated that any conceivable time horizon of success ranges far into the future. So be it. That the task is long-range is not an argument against it: what is required is a strategic vision that is plausible. Our analysis...
Personal Epilogue: Hearts Starve
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In January 2002, having completed a conference on labor and globalization at the University of Beijing, I, along with my coworker, Anita Chan, and the historian-sociologist Peter Alexander, guided by a Beijing friend of Ms. Chan, went in search of a clothing factory. First we went to a market far on the southern side of the city. Beijing city authorities had built the market after they tore down a street bazaar.
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Page Count: 408
Publication Year: 2004