In Chains at the Bottom of the Pyramid : Gender and Sweated Labor in Global Apparel Production

Published on the blog site This week in Sociology
OCTOBER 25, 2011
Robert J.S. Ross – Clark University

Sweatshop conditions refer to long hours, low wages and oppressive conditions – dangerous unhealthy, psychologically abusive or squalid. In the global assembly line that often means a woman worker is doing the job.

In the apparel industry, as an example, a majority of the production employees are female. These include the very large number of all apparel workers who are sewing machine operators.    At the bottom of the pyramid of power and money, these workers toil for wages that often cannot support their livelihood – forcing families to send more workers, including children out into the economy to pool enough money to survive. The social science concept here is that of social reproduction:  if a wage does not cover the costs of the workers existence and of the creation of the next generation of workers (children, their education and sustenance, etc) then the employer and industry enjoy a subsidy from unpaid labor of social reproduction.

Ion much of the global apparel industry, for example, throughout Central America, the minimum wage for apparel workers is less the one-third of what it takes to support a family.  Wages in Asia are so much lower than that that jobs are lost in Central America in favor even cheaper labor elsewhere.

There are an number of factors that allow this situation to continue, including the highly competitive structure of the industry. Hardly any of the brand names in today’s market own their own factories; instead, more or less anonymous contractor factories do the cutting and sewing, and there is an abundance of them. The business is like a bunch of scorpions in a bottle –but the big brands and retailers hold the glass stopper!


Patriarchy and gender roles at the bottom of the pyramid

Women who take jobs in sweatshops most usually do so voluntarily – in the sense that there is rarely physical coercion or threat of violence that recruits them to or keeps them on the job.

However  coerced labor is a frequent if not a common occurrence among migrant workers.  For example contract workers recruited in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to work in Jordanian garment factories have their passports taken, are kept under restrictive physical conditions, and in a couple of factories subject to sexual harassment and rape. Chinese migrant workers’ first month’s pay is kept as security on their yearlong contracts making the cost of escape from bad jobs the surrender of a month’s pay. In a notorious case, Chinese owners created clones of Chinese migrant workers’ dorms in the US Commonwealth of the Marianas (Guam) and were eventually found guilty of holding indentured labor.

In more normal or formally regulated labor markets, traditional cultural and status norms may constrain the nature of women workers’ choices such that they yield up their labor power for less than they might otherwise obtain as more nearly free agents.

For example, Chinese women in New York’s Chinatown may be instructed by fathers or husbands to accept work only within the neighborhood – both a protective and a controlling motivation. Restricting the options for work, inevitably, in a market economy, will restrict earning power.

Given the triple burden of childcare, home-making, and paid work, sweatshops shops may permit practices that make concessions to women’s roles as caretakers. Employers may allow young children to stay with mothers; hours of work may be suspended at mealtimes and resumed at night.

Another norm among migrants and immigrants – often but not always gender-linked – is the practice or requirement of seeking jobs with kin. This is related to the broader practice of seeking jobs with co-ethnics or employers from the workers’ home town or province. The literature on ethnic entrepreneurs sometimes praises  such employers pointing out their competitive advantage in so-called ethnic niche markets. This becomes less attractive from the point of view at the bottom of the pyramid:  they are able to exploit vulnerable and immobile labor as a means of lowering costs in relation to potential competitors. When the potential workers do not speak the language or dialect of the host city or country the advantage of the co-ethnic employer is clear, while the disadvantage of the worker in seeking more nearly advantageous employment is also clear.

For young and unmarried women, given restricted labor market options, the opportunity to earn cash outside of unpaid household work may be a relatively liberating experience. Expected to labor for fathers or older brothers at home, cash jobs, of even low standards, may be quite appealing. This then is a rich paradox:  but it is no more so than the birth of capitalism itself. To become a wage worker – a “wage slave” as the radical turn of the 20th century union, the IWW once put it—is a step up from serfdom and legally coerced labor. Miserable wages are a step up from – usually an addition to –unpaid household labor.

Gender norms and cultural practices facilitate exploitation. These include all those practices of co-ethnicity, and extended family ties that restricting choice for the prospective female employee. The contrast between the availability of cash compared to unpaid household labor may dampen the pain of low pay and long hours. The assignment of some tasks to women – sewing –and others to men – cutting and pressing – recruits for the largest work category those for whom it is customary to pay less. It has become culturally chic to repeat the phrase popularized by Mao Tse-Tong: women hold up half the sky.  Even notorious sweatshop-defenders, Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn use the phrase.  Perhaps we need a new version:  women carry half the pyramid of power and exploitation on their backs. Maybe more.

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