PRINT March 1996


Return of the Sweatshop

PEOPLE WHO SNEER at fashion have learned, over the years, to avoid judgments that are overtly denigratory to women and gay men. The field of calumny has diminished considerably as a result. The most durable argument against expensive fashions maintains that they’re not what real people wear, and therefore can be excluded from the class of socially relevant phenomena. But even if we ignore the patronizing quality of this assumption about what real people do, there are fewer and fewer moral grounds these days for identifying with their clothing as a matter of social conscience. I’m referring to the scandalous labor conditions in which most garments, outside the high-fashion circuit of craft production, are made.

Most folks, however blasé, probably balk at the idea of owning the products of slave labor. Yet knowledge of the cruelty of Central American and Asian sweatshop regimes in the service of U.S. apparel has been available for almost two decades now. Stories about the life-threatening environment of these workplaces, and the brutality of child labor there, have long been augmented by statistics like the 12-cent labor cost on an $80 pair of 1992 Nike sneakers, made in Indonesia, or (going back farther) the 300 percent markup on a 1976 Macy’s $6.50 bra, made in Mexico. Still, all this registered rather dimly on the American public consciousness, to be activated occasionally by hooks like “Look for the Union Label,” the popular ditty of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). After all, most citizens of the North, however much they themselves are suffering, do not appear uncomfortable with the idea that third world workers are suffering too, and on their behalf.

Some kind of collective recoil seems to be emerging at last, particularly as revelations about the return of sweatshops to the U.S. have made the headlines. These obscene institutions were once thought to have been banished forever, like tuberculosis, but in August a raid on the El Monte compound in Southern California uncovered 70 undocumented Thai workers behind barbed-wire fences, locked up around the clock to produce garments for Neiman Marcus, Montgomery Ward, Macy’s, Hecht’s, and Filene’s. These conditions, by no means unique to the region, were legally recognized as peonage. The subcontracting structure of the garment industry makes nonaccountability at the top a byword. All the same, well-known retailing names rushed to cover their corporate butts.

In the fall, a National Labor Committee–sponsored tour of the U.S. by two maquiladora child laborers, Judith Veira and Claudia Molina, brought gruesome tales of forced 20-hour work shifts and ruthless bathroom-break quotas, and attracted the attention of major news organizations. Subsequently, a campaign against the Gap organized by UNITE! (the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial, and Textile Employees), pressured this nonunion retailer to allow independent third-party monitoring of the Mandarin International Plant in El Salvador (as well as of other nondomestic Gap subcontractors), which had been the focus of the media attention. There, workers get 18 cents for every $20-wholesale shirt they make for the likes of the Gap, Liz Claiborne, Eddie Bauer, J. Crew, and JC Penney. As part of a rare victory for labor rights in these free-trade zones, the Gap also offered to rehire workers fired for unionizing, and to translate a Gap code of conduct into languages understandable by non-English-speaking workers.

For a textbook outcome of the New World Order’s economic liberalization, look no farther than the $200-billion-a-year U.S. apparel industry, whose import sector has leapt from 9 percent of production in 1967 to well over 60 percent today. The hemorrhaging of domestic, union jobs to Central America over those three decades was facilitated by a Pentagon-influenced trade policy under which U.S. Agency for International Development loans and tax exemptions directly “rewarded” nations for their cold war loyalty by helping them to attract U.S. manufacturing. Their wages: one-tenth of the domestic levels. For banks and other international investors, NAFTA’s promise of a hemispheric market is based upon a feminization of labor, making it cheap—the same premise as the earlier Caribbean Basin Initiative, which brought low-wage employment in light assembly, garmentmaking, tourism, and word-processing and other computer work to the island states, and created a huge market in domestic work for female migrants to the U.S.

Consequently, labor conditions in much of the garment industry, both in and outside the U.S., once again resemble the turn-of-the-century heyday of the pre-union American sweatshop: a work force of under-skilled women, toiling in fly-by-night factories where labor costs are cut to the bone from underbidding, and where benefits, safety, and health insurance are unheard of. Unlike the early part of this century, however, when employers had family businesses with some roots in the workers’ community, today’s big names in clothing are rarely in control of their companies, are beholden to public investors, and operate through contractors in 70 different countries. The “names” can nonetheless be shamed, as the Gap campaign has demonstrated.

On the other hand, apparel has the potential to be a textbook example of a viable, modernized first world industry. Plagued from the outset by runaway shops (Brooklyn, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were the original nonunion locations), apparel was the prototypical “industry on wheels.” But because it was never organized according to a Fordist economy of scale, it was also a pioneer of the kind of flexible, just-in-time production that has become a central feature of the new industrial order. The U.S. industry now has two choices: Continue to develop a third world economy at home and abroad, where a community’s poverty becomes an advantage in the cutthroat game in which brand-name companies shop around the world for the cheapest female labor. Or develop a quick-response, apparel-on-demand domestic industry, with a multi-skilled labor force that can compete globally with mass-produced quality goods while also developing local craft-oriented markets (a strategy pioneered by smaller designer companies like that of Nicole Miller, who made the decision to manufacture within five blocks of Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue). New media technologies have made this post-Fordist kind of production quite feasible. U.S. trade and industrial policy, unlike that of countries like France and Italy, has made it impossible until now, largely because U.S. policy has not been willing to protect the unions that are necessary to guarantee such an economy. Perhaps the worst retail Christmas season in memory will remind investors that people need better jobs and wages even to think about buying these days.

Where does fashion come into this picture? As in the larger industry that underpins its logic, fashion’s rhythms of semiotic turnover appeal to principles of volatility, instability, and impermanence. The influence of youth culture and street style has lent even more unpredictability to the fashion game, and the emergence of niche markets and global cultural communications has meant that hundreds of millions of people are now affected by its shifting currents and cycles. The politics of fashion are no longer an exclusive, elite affair. They touch on many of the daily issues that concern “real people”: from self-respect and self-creation to gender, race, and class mobility. When it comes down to it, only intellectuals and the voluntary bohemian poor actually want to look shabby and ungroomed.

Nonetheless, it is from these quarters that the tirades against the politics of style continue unabated. Common sense, if not fashion sense, should dictate that questions of style are not diversionary luxuries but rather are intimately tied to the economic prospects of working people—of 1.7 million people in the American apparel industry, to be precise, more than in auto, steel, or chemical manufacturing. In fashion matters, industrial policy already involves cultural policy. It is high time this was properly acknowledged.

Andrew Ross is the coorganizer of an upcoming conference at New York University, on March 23 and 24, entitled “Fashion Victims: Labor Spectacle and Policy.” For information call (212) 998-3720.