- Thiefing a Chance: Factory Work, Illicit Labor, and Neoliberal Subjectivities in Trinidad by Rebecca Prentice
Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2015
248 pp., $34.95 (paper)
In Thiefing a Chance: Factory Work, Illicit Labor, and Neoliberal Subjectivities in Trinidad, Rebecca Prentice explores the dynamics and meanings of the gap between neoliberalism in theory and " 'actually existing neoliberalism,' the complex, messy, and contingent ways an economic doctrine of liberalization, privatization, and competition becomes lived as everyday experiences" (3). International Monetary Fund–led economic liberalization had a profound effect on Trinidad's clothing-producing industry and its workers. This trade liberalization largely destroyed Trinidad's garment-producing sector, first by facilitating the relocation of export-oriented clothing production to China, Central America, and other and other non-Caribbean locations; and, second, by opening Trinidad's markets to low-cost, foreign-made garments. The Trinidadian clothing makers who were able to continue production were largely those who eschewed mass-produced, ready-made clothing in favor of clothing produced for niches in a local or regional marketplace. For some, this was the production of clothing meant for the tourist trade; for others, like Signature Fashions—a producer of high-end clothing where Prentice worked as an unpaid employee and undertook field research for fifteen months—it was the production of high-end, fashion-forward clothes for the eastern Caribbean market. In an attempt to tease out "how neoliberalism is made local" (203), Prentice interviewed and interacted with the Trinidadian women employed at Signature Fashions. She deftly unpacks the effects on these women of neoliberal-era economic restructuring and explores both the question of how they negotiated these changes daily and the precariousness of this imposed economic order.
Importantly, Prentice presents the garment-producing women she interviewed as much more than simply winners, losers, victims, or passive recipients in the broad sweep of twenty-first-century globalization. By their "making and taking furtive opportunities" (2), by their "thiefing a chance," Prentice positions Signature employees as economic agents in their own right and belies the notion that globalization has simply been an imposed, one-way process. For the workers at Signature, "thiefing a chance," a colloquial Trinidadian phrase referring to the practice of taking "an illicit opportunity for a small amount of personal gain" (4), has become "a central idiom for how garment workers . . . have coped with the demands of the neoliberal era" (9). To supplement their earnings, Signature workers often operated informal sewing businesses from their homes, designing and sewing low-cost clothes for family, friends, and neighbors. Through thiefing, they turned their daily access to industrial-quality sewing machines, fabrics, and patterns for designer clothing into an opportunity for individual advancement.
Thiefing required a certain degree of cooperation and solidarity among workers on the shop floor to pass garments through the stitching, cutting, and pressing rooms [End Page 142] or to ferry out of the factory fabrics and supplies at the end of the day. It was only when Prentice assisted a coworker with her thiefing that she truly shed her outsider status. Illicit and informal uses of the factory, such as passing fabric through the cutting room so a Signature design could be copied and cut or stitching professional seams and hems on clothing for home-based clients, also imbued many women's work at Signature with meaning. It was part and parcel of what Trinidadian clothing workers called "into the sewing," a phrase not only signifying one's employment in the garment sector but linking their factory work to a broader sense of self, a sense of personal vocation, professional identity, and skill that went beyond simple financial remuneration from their industrial employment.
Somewhat surprisingly, though, Prentice found that Signature workers most identified thiefing not with a sense of class camaraderie or workplace solidarity but with personal traits highly valued within neoliberalism: flexibility, adaptability, cunning, self-reliance, an entrepreneurial spirit, a focus on individual gain. She asserts that thiefing is not an example of what James C. Scott would identify as acts of everyday resistance, given that the women alongside whom Prentice labored did...