- Monitoring Sweatshops: Workers, Consumers, and the Global Apparel Industry
On his second overseas trip as a young and inexperienced sweatshop inspector employed by a US-based private monitoring firm, Joshua Samuel Brown visited a typical mainland Chinese apparel factory and found every violation in the book: the workers were putting in ninety hour weeks to meet production quotas, there were no fire extinguishers or fire exits, no safety guards on the sewing machines, and the first-aid boxes contained nothing but packages of instant noodles. Despite these conditions, the workers he interviewed said they were happy to be making $100 a month from their piece-rate wages because that was enough for them to be able to send remittances to their families back home in the countryside, and they were nervous that the inspectors would close down the factory and they would lose their jobs.
When Brown confronted the factory owner with his report and recommendations for corrective action, she acknowledged his findings and invited him and his partner to share a pot of tea. She thanked him for caring so much about poor Chinese factory workers but then went on to say, "But really, it's all about profit. If I paid my workers more money, I'd have to raise the price to my buyers, the people who are sending you here to inspect my factory. Do you think they would accept that?" When Brown tried to explain to her that a "new consciousness" is developing among Western consumers and investors that is causing brand name manufacturers to want to clean up the Chinese factories that stitch apparel for them, she replied by reciting an old Chinese proverb, "Gua yang tou, mai gou rou," which means, "Hang a sheep head but serve dog-meat."
This striking account, reprinted as an appendix to her detailed and well-researched study of the sweatshop monitoring movement, encapsulates the Esbenshade's main thesis: the private apparel factory monitoring schemes set up in the 1990s to eliminate "sweatshops" have done little to ameliorate the plight of workers in the apparel industry and mainly serve as public relations exercises for brand name manufacturers designed to deflect criticism from social consumers and NGO activists back home. Private monitoring schemes involve branded apparel manufacturers adopting voluntary labor codes and then sending in their own employees as inspectors (internal monitoring), or requiring that their contractors hire private social auditing companies (external monitoring), to inspect the contractor's factories to determine whether they are in compliance with these codes.
Data that Esbenshade has assembled and analyzed from Department of Labor Surveys of the garment industry in Los Angeles indicate that "monitoring seems to significantly raise the rates of compliance in the industry."1 However, she cautions against assuming a single causal link between monitoring and compliance on the grounds that the manufacturers may be using the better shops and selecting them for monitoring. She emphasizes [End Page 1124] that "the crucial point is that even in the higher of the monitored categories, more than half the shops are still out of compliance."2 Private monitoring is beset with a host of problems, including poor training of inspectors, erratic oversight, inadequate reporting systems, and inherent conflicts of interest. The problems are even more evident when we move to international monitoring.
Esbenshade's analysis of sixty reports and papers published between 1996 and 2003 dealing with private international monitoring indicate that "code implementation in some factories has led to concrete improvement but not to full compliance, while in other factories there have been no improvements."3 In the studies that reported improvements, the most common examples were: "improvements in the physical conditions in the plants (ergonomically correct equipment, potable water, ventilation, bathroom access), in a reduction of physical and verbal harassment, and in the correct payment of minimally required wages and benefits."4 Only rarely had monitoring led to "higher wages or respect for the right to organize."5 Esbenshade's main objection to private monitoring systems...