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Slaves to Fashion

Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops

Robert J. S. Ross

Publication Year: 2004

A brilliant and beautiful book, the mature work of a lifetime, must reading for students of the globalization debate. ---Tom Hayden "Slaves to Fashion is a remarkable achievement, several books in one: a gripping history of sweatshops, explaining their decline, fall, and return; a study of how the media portray them; an analysis of the fortunes of the current anti-sweatshop movement; an anatomy of the global traffic in apparel, in particular the South-South competition that sends wages and working conditions plummeting toward the bottom; and not least, a passionate declaration of faith that humanity can find a way to get its work done without sweatshops. This is engaged sociology at its most stimulating." ---Todd Gitlin ". . . unflinchingly portrays the reemergence of the sweatshop in our dog-eat-dog economy." ---Los Angeles Times Just as Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed uncovered the plight of the working poor in America, Robert J. S. Ross's Slaves to Fashion exposes the dark side of the apparel industry and its exploited workers at home and abroad. It's both a lesson in American business history and a warning about one of the most important issues facing the global capital economy-the reappearance of the sweatshop. Vividly detailing the decline and tragic rebirth of sweatshop conditions in the American apparel industry of the twentieth century, Ross explains the new sweatshops as a product of unregulated global capitalism and associated deregulation, union erosion, and exploitation of undocumented workers. Using historical material and economic and social data, the author shows that after a brief thirty-five years of fair practices, the U.S. apparel business has once again sunk to shameful abuse and exploitation. Refreshingly jargon-free but documented in depth, Slaves to Fashion is the only work to estimate the size of the sweatshop problem and to systematically show its impact on apparel workers' wages. It is also unique in its analysis of the budgets and personnel used in enforcing the Fair Labor Standards Act. Anyone who is concerned about this urgent social and economic topic and wants to go beyond the headlines should read this important and timely contribution to the rising debate on low-wage factory labor. Robert J.S. Ross is Professor of Sociology, Clark University. He is an expert in the area of sweatshops and globalization. He is an activist academic who travels and lectures extensively and has published numerous related articles.

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

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.

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Introduction: Sweatshops Are Where Hearts Starve

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pp. 1-6

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 poem—written in 1911 to celebrate women workers on strike—“Bread and Roses.” I want to play this...

Part 1: The Fall and Rise of Sweatshops in the United States

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Chapter 1: What Is a Sweatshop?

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pp. 9-41

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,...

Appendix 1: Estimating the Number of Sweatshop Workers in the United States in 2000

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pp. 42-51

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Chapter 2: Memory of Strike and Fire

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pp. 52-71

In the fall of 1909 young women sewing machine operators—“girls” they were called, and many were but fourteen or fifteen—began a strike against two New York City garment firms. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company and Leisorson’s were two among the very large “inside” or factory-based manufacturers. Almost two years later a ‹re at the Triangle Factory would sear American memory, forever joining...

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Chapter 3: The Decline of Sweatshops in the United States

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pp. 72-85

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.

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Chapter 4: The Era of Decency and the Return of the Sweatshop

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pp. 86-100

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 women’s 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,...

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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...

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Chapter 5: Global Capitalism and the Race to the Bottom in the Production of Our Clothes

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pp. 103-124

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...

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Chapter 6: Retail Chains: The Eight-Hundred-Pound Gorillas of the World Trade in Clothing

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pp. 125-146

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...

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Chapter 7: Firing Guard Dogs and Hiring Foxes

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pp. 147-171

Among the thousands of small contractor shops where workers sew clothing— in New York, Los Angeles, New Jersey, and around the United States—six out of every ten persistently break the labor laws by failing to pay minimum wages or overtime.¹ Over the last three decades, though, the government has gradually undertaken unilateral disarmament in the fight against labor lawbreakers.

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Chapter 8: Immigrants and Imports

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pp. 172-186

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,...

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Chapter 9: Union Busting and the Global Runaway Shop

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pp. 187-205

If the commandment that instructs people to observe a day of rest for the Sabbath is the first labor law, employers’ 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.

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Chapter 10: Framing Immigrants, Humiliating Big Shots: Mass Media and the Sweatshop Issue

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pp. 206-238

The reemergence of sweatshops in the American apparel industry was— eventually—accompanied 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 “externalizing” tendency by focusing on the immigrant status of the exploited workers.

Appendix 2: Details of the Immigrant Blame Analysis

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pp. 239-242

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Conclusion to Part 2: Producing Sweatshops in the United States

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pp. 243-244

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...

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Part 3: Movements and Policies

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pp. 245-248

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 administration’s commitment to suppressing leftist movements and left-wing elected governments in the Western Hemisphere in the 1980s caused it...

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Chapter 11: Combating Sweatshops from the Grass Roots

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pp. 249-283

In January 1999 a new student movement announced itself on the campuses of American universities. It began a campaign for a “sweat-free campus” and announced itself in dramatic fashion—by occupying over the next four months administration buildings on seven campuses— Duke (January 29), Georgetown (February 5), Wisconsin (February 8), Michigan (March 17), Fairfield...

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Chapter 12: Solidarity North and South: Reframing International Labor Rights

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pp. 284-308

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...

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Chapter 13: Ascending a Ladder of Effective Antisweatshop Policy

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pp. 309-321

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).

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Chapter 14: Three Pillars of Decency

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pp. 322-334

Some policies are more powerful or strategic than others. The more permanent and far-reaching solutions to labor abuse are located at the global level—where 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...

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Personal Epilogue: Hearts Starve

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pp. 335-337

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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pp. 339-351


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pp. 352-376


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pp. 377-396

E-ISBN-13: 9780472025664
E-ISBN-10: 047202566X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472030224
Print-ISBN-10: 0472030221

Page Count: 408
Publication Year: 2004