- Threads: Gender, Labor, and Power in the Global Apparel Industry
In Threads, women's studies professor Jane Collins builds on a long tradition of research in garment manufacturing, with its history and contemporary female-majority workforce, but pursues a unique research design. She "threads" two industries, one a failed traditional southern paternalistic plant and the other a pioneer for its multiple brands and multi-country subcontracting with two subcontractor plants in the single locale of north-central Mexico, Aguascalientes.
Collins has chosen a topic of enormous significance for women. Women have dominated textile assembly-line work not only in the United States (although many have lost jobs to offshore production) but also women predominate worldwide where wages are a fraction of U.S. levels. In 2005, the complex 1974 Multi-Fiber Arrangement that established country-specific [End Page 221] quantity quotas will end, and many garment workers will likely lose their jobs to China, as it has some of the world's cheapest labor.
Collins uses mixed methods to answer key questions: How does apparel industry competition shape the organization of work? How do workers experience these changes? She traces links between financiers, marketers, and managers of global headquarters and local subcontractor firms through interviews, documents, and trade publications like Bobbin, Women's Wear Daily, and Apparel Industry Magazine. With the ethnographer's eye for detail, she paints vivid descriptions of the company town in Martinsville, Virginia, with its failed Tultex Plant and of Liz Claiborne headquarters in New Jersey, with its genius for standards-based production control and multiple-brand marketing. Collins compares her cases both at the headquarters and in Mexico.
Despite great differences in headquarter firms' management and marketing strategies, the subcontractors' plants in Aguascalientes offer few striking contrasts in wages, hours, and organizing/networking opportunities. Yet subtle differences are relevant. The Confitek plant, linked to the failed traditional Tultex, was like a medium-sized sweatshop, and the Liz Claiborne-linked Burlmex plant was a large, modern facility with carefully monitored control of working standards and outputs for more complex production. Burlmex deepened Frederick Taylor's scientific management principles, popularized in turn-of-the-twentieth-century U.S. production to discipline workers through incentives. Women workers contest and resist these practices largely through community-based and transnational organizations that address larger household needs, rather than through traditional Mexican unions that emphasize collaboration with management. One shortcoming of the book is that the comparison of Mexican plants draws far more interviews with managers than workers; Collins relies primarily on secondary evidence about workers' resistance.
And what is to be done? Collins stops short of discussing action strategies that flow from her analysis. She avoids framing the research to support either neoliberal economic market models or wholesale resistance to globalization, in our world of capital concentration. However, Collins does provide some tantalizing ideas about spotty efforts to encourage corporate social responsibility and to organize workers. For example, New York State's 1996 "hot goods law" allowed prosecutors to hold manufacturers responsible when their subcontractors broke wage and hour laws. These laws have been applied inside the United States, rather than to non-U.S. contractors or to the North American countries of Canada, the United States, and Mexico under their NAFTA (North American Free Trade Association) regime wherein negotiators missed opportunities to add stronger worker-friendly amendments. Collins also cites many organizations with comprehensive women workers' agendas: the Juarez-based Center for the Orientation of Women Workers (COMO), apparel industry unions such as [End Page 222] UNITE (Union of Needletrade, Industrial, and Textile Employees), transnational organizations like the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras and the Border Committee for Women Workers, and anti-sweatshop movements at universities, among others. Although Collins does not analyze broader based consumer boycotts, she does discuss workers' difficulties even naming their employer to target access or political strategy, a similar issue that consumers face in a world of global subcontracting and multiple brands housed under a single corporate roof. With the...