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Monitoring Sweatshops: Workers, Consumers, and the Global Apparel Industry (review)

From: NWSA Journal
Volume 18, Number 1, Spring 2006
pp. 222-224 | 10.1353/nwsa.2006.0003

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NWSA Journal 18.1 (2006) 222-224

Monitoring Sweatshops: Workers, Consumers, and the Global Apparel Industry by Jill Esbenshade. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004, 272 pp., $69.50 hardcover, $22.95 paper.

Guess? denied and Kathie Lee cried. The Secretary of Labor jawboned, while students protested. Domestic and international human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) investigated. The anti-sweatshop movement grew from public disgust with the child labor, starvation wages, sexual harassment, and authoritarian repression that lay behind Nike labels and Wal-Mart bargains. It developed from a new awareness of globalization, in which some women from Asia and the Americas had migrated to Los Angeles and other U.S. cities to engage in work that other women did in their countries of origin. But as El Salvadoran trade unionist Marcela Muñoz explains, "Someone outside cannot know what it is like to be at a machine ten hours a day, or standing ironing, to be out of your house for fifteen hours. And that person cannot defend our rights" (206). At the end of the twentieth century, the sweatshop became the object of political controversy with the transformation of apparel production under global supply chains, product branding, and government deregulation. Particularly important was the dominance of big retailers who exerted control over manufacturing without legal liability. Monitoring Sweatshops critically assesses the global regulatory regime that emerged to fight the sweatshop.

A participant in the developments recounted here, sociologist Jill Esbenshade combines survey research, interviews, and secondary analysis of economic data. She critiques monitoring—the certification of conditions under which contractors make goods usually by for-profit accounting firms—as a privatization of government regulation. This practice sought to turn the outrage of consumers into a benefit for the manufacturers who actually employ the monitoring firms. Clean conditions would generate clean bills of health, which in turn would cleanse the conscience of consumers. Manufacturers could claim themselves to be "sweat-free" and retain or increase their market share in the cut-throat world of apparel. But what about those who toiled in sweatshops, workplaces that ignore labor standards (like minimum wage, maximum hours, health and safety, collective bargaining, and associational rights) and attempt to produce the most goods at the least cost in the shortest time?

For Esbenshade, assuaging the guilt of consumers can never substitute for worker empowerment. Her study is not about women, although they compose the majority of workers in apparel sweatshops, as she details, but for them. "Private monitoring," she argues, "is a means of removing workers, particularly female and ethnic-minority workers, from participation in the mechanism of rights enforcement" (33). Countering the image of the vulnerable "third world" woman worker requiring protection by "first world" consumers and ethical manufacturers, Esbenshade champions the alternative of independent monitoring by NGOs, as exemplified by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), which she helped found. The WRC emerged out of demands by United Students Against Sweatshops that universities hold firms producing products bearing their logo accountable to stringent codes of conduct. It stood in contrast to the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a certification group that derived from Clinton administration efforts to bring stakeholders together, whose effectiveness had been stymied by FLA employer members who blocked transparency, rejected unannounced inspections, and rejected the naming of specific violations.

Esbenshade clearly summarizes the social compact that emerged from garment unionization and the growth of the welfare state during the first half of the twentieth century. Its features—"companies' commitment to national economic well-being and government protection of vulnerable workers through social welfare and controls on the excesses of free-market capitalism" (20)—represent a world lost with recent economic and political changes. She describes a new "social-accountability contract" between manufacturers, national governments and NGOs, and contractors, a pact that leaves workers out. Through the case study of Los Angeles, Esbenshade shows how "manufacturers clearly use monitoring to mediate relations with consumers and investors as much as to clean up abhorrent conditions" (56–7). Haphazard without standard procedures, monitoring run by private companies reinforces rather than challenges existing power relations. It covers violations of labor standards but not the right to organize. These weaknesses persist in international monitoring, with some notable...

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