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Reality for Garment Workers



In all the debates about the global supply chain, perhaps the very laziest and self-serving arguments proponents of free trade make is that the workers overseas need to lobby their own nations for changes if they want their lives to get better. This is a grotesque argument for a number of reasons, including that it allows consumers and, more importantly, active supporters of global labor exploitation, to feel real good about themselves while they benefit from the suffering of others. But it’s also absurd on the face of it because these workers face tremendous daily exploitation that the people who make these arguments have never experienced and cannot comprehend. And despite this, they do stand up and make demands whenever they can! But the reality for these workers is a hard, brutal life. Ila Ananya on garment workers in Bangalore.

“People were angry and they were scared,” Yashodha says. “Very often, any small issue can mean that a worker loses their job. Those who are in charge don’t even have to say that they are terminating our job, all they say is, “naale inda kelsakke barbeda”, “don’t come to work from tomorrow”, and we can’t go to work anymore.” Yashodha laughs in the same way that she does when she talks about doing “OC kelsa”, or free extra work, because they are told that they haven’t met their already high production targets. The targets depend on the piece they are working on – it’s lower for trousers, and also depend on the brand making the clothes (some are for large international brands like Banana Republic and H&M), or the kind of stitches involved. Shanthi, a garment factory worker, says that the production targets have been increased at her workplace, “They used to be about 50 [items] in an hour, which we could do. But now they want 80-90 per hour.”

Yashodha is quick to point out that on paper, workers are supposed to get a lot of things. “According to the law we can have 14 days of leave, but we never get any leave even for emergencies. Someone has died in our family in the village, and we aren’t allowed to go. If we go for a day or two without leave, we are asked to quit work,” she says.

Workers also face restrictions on unionising. Anyone who does unionise or mobilise support for an issue is immediately asked to leave – Rukmini, currently the President of GLU, wasn’t allowed to continue her work when she joined the union. Instead, Yashodha says that they are sometimes given money, and are removed from work – “they have all these tricks,” she says.

Workplace harassment is common, the women say. In February 2007, Ammu, a migrant garment factory worker committed suicide in Bangalore after being harassed by her male supervisors, and in October 2007, Renuka, also a garment factory worker, committed suicide after harassment. “They’re always yelling at us,” Savitri says. Shanti says that when they try to tell their superiors about their problems, nobody listens, “All they say is that it’s in the rules.”

This is why we as Americans have to make decisions on the labor conditions and environmental standards we will accept for products sold in this nation, especially products sold by American corporations. There is no good reason for these conditions to exist. You can still have relatively inexpensive clothes and treat women workers with dignity. Telling them to lobby for change in India and Bangladesh while we do nothing is an absurd argument that is not only offensive, but neocolonialist. We have to expand the American regulatory system to cover imports. We already do–elephant tusks, slave labor, etc. We can expand this tremendously. If we care.

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  • Chuchundra

    Take up the White Man’s burden, Send forth the best ye breed
    Go bind your sons to exile, to serve your captives’ need;
    To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild—
    Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child.

  • DrDick

    Sexual assault and rape are also endemic in the garment industry, where virtually all workers are female, especially in South Asia. Physical intimidation and beatings are also common. I am covering these issues in my class this week. Always uplifting.

    • sapient

      Is the garment industry worse than other walks of life, such as agriculture, in terms of sexual assault in East Asia?

      • I don’t know statistically. And I don’t even know how you would measure it. But sexual assault in the garment industry has long been a problem, really going back to its earliest days. It’s so across different places and with different models. So in Latin America, you have Korean-owned factories and there the sexual assault might be from the Korean men or the local supervisors. In Bangladesh, you have domestically-owned factories and it’s by the people they hire locally. But the entire set up of the sweatshop really lends itself to the exploitation of women, not only in terms of labor but it terms of their bodies.

        • sapient

          I think it’s a deeper cultural problem than just one that can be blamed on labor, is what I’m saying. An argument can be made that as industrialization decreases poverty generally, it also provides more opportunity for women. Like most aspects of globalization, the picture is more complicated than “Look how people are exploited at the hands of the evil capitalists!”

          Workers’ rights and environmental standards are important to fight for, but globalism isn’t the root of all evil. In fact, it creates wealth. The challenge is to distribute the wealth more appropriately, not only to workers, but to former workers whose jobs were shipped elsewhere.

          • But I’m not calling for the end of globalization. I’m calling for globalization with standards that hold corporations accountable for their actions and the actions of their suppliers no matter where they move.

            • Linnaeus

              For some folks, that is calling for the end of globalization.

              • liberalrob

                Worse than that…it’s The Dead Hand Of Government intruding on the private sphere. Only Communists call for government regulation of the private sector. And calling for regulations enforcing sanctions in one country for what happens in another is another skid down the slippery slope to One World Government [warning: InfoWars link].

            • Lit3Bolt

              Matthew Yglesias: “Why are you against the workers who willingly gave their lives at Rana Plaza? This is what they WANTED!”

          • DrDick

            It is a deeper cultural problem (not just overseas, but here in the US as well), which is given free reign under the sweatshop regimes with little job security and no worker protections.

            • sapient

              Erik says there’s no evidence that manufacturing jobs are more or less likely to lead to sexual abuse. I think we need to go with that until we have evidence that somehow it’s worse for women who work in factories. We can’t just assume that it’s worse (or that it might not be better) just because we oppose trade (mostly because it displaces former manufacturing workers in the US.)

              No doubt there is some variation among factories. Regulation and public pressure makes things better for workers. I support these efforts. Also, I support compensating people who lose their jobs in the US, and taxing the wealth of the 1%.

              • DrDick

                Erik said he did not know if it was worse. I do know that sweatshop conditions encourage this kind of behavior, as I have been talking about this in my classes for a decade. It is also not “an Asian thing”. It happens here routinely.

                • galanx

                  A woman at a sweatshop is under a different set of circumstances than in the village. Yes, she can get asaulted with some kind of impunity if her attacker has sufficiently high status, and she is one of the lowly; but there are also webs of family and local institutions that offer some protection (not glorifying women’s place in traditional culture; just that she has a place beyond the economic there).

                  In a sweatshop women are often single or separated from their husbands by different jobs; many of them live in dormitories; they are far from home and often actively despised by the local authorites etc,.

      • DrDick

        This is not unique to Asia and was common in the US and Europe before the 1940s, as well. Still happens in both places.

  • I’m sure these workers are all willing to line up so that they can be collectively disappeared.

    The people who negotiate these free trade agreements are also the ones who look upon China with wonder and awe.

    • addicted44

      Free Trade isn’t the source of these problems. The garment industry was equally bad (maybe even worse?) when the products were only intended for domestic usage. By increasing the size of the industry, maybe free trade increases the numbers of people who suffer from these conditions.

      However, instead of railing about free trade, it might be useful (as I believe Bernie does, but I am not a 100% sure about this), to ask for free trade agreements which offer free trade only in return for protections for such workers.

      But to do that, you first need to accept Erik’s well argued premise that Americans really should fight for worker protections abroad, but further, you need to convince americans of that argument. However, for the most part, the anti free-trade arguments seem to fall into binary Free Trade Good/Bad positions, and even the Free Trade Bad side pushes the argument it’s bad because others are taking away the jobs, which makes it hard to push for a let’s improve those others’s lives as part of this free trade agreement position.

      • Rugosa

        But Americans have bought into the anti-union, anti-worker rhetoric from the right wing. If Americans don’t believe in fighting for their own rights, it’s a very hard sell to get them to fight for someone else’s. Now we may be seeing the pendulum swing back toward the left, but there’s a long way to go before Americans have the level of union solidarity they had before about 1980.

      • However, instead of railing about free trade, it might be useful (as I believe Bernie does, but I am not a 100% sure about this), to ask for free trade agreements which offer free trade only in return for protections for such workers.

        I believe that falls under the moniker of ‘fair trade,’ which I support. The problem, as I see it, is that the current agreements favor free flow of capital over workers because displaced workers can just magically find new jobs while capital needs protection to keep it safe.

      • DrDick

        No, the problem is the free trade agreements, which contain no worker and environmental protections and thus encourage this kind of thing as it increases profits for both the factory owners and the first world corporations. Also, Sanders does not rail against “free trade”, he rails against trade agreements without those protections.

    • DrDick

      As Erik’s post yesterday highlights, they are aggressively trying to emulate the Chinese prison labor system.

  • liberalrob

    If we care.

    In general, “we” don’t. We need more books like Out Of Sight, more documentaries like The True Cost, and we need them to be much more widely distributed and discussed than they are now.

    • DrDick

      I agree with this and it is a big reason I cover this in my race and ethnicity class (today in fact).

  • Pseudonym

    What would an Erik Loomis trade policy for the US look like? Would US labor and environmental standards be applied globally? Would it allow low-priced imports of garments from countries with lower labor costs even if that undermined unionized workers domestically? I get that it’s hardly incumbent on absolute-free-trade skeptics to outline a complete alternative, I’m just curious what one would consist of.

  • burnspbesq

    We can expand this tremendously. If we care.

    Can we? Did we not cede our right to do that when we signed on to the WTO?

  • Alan Tomlinson

    Is there a reputable “white list” of brands(e.g. Patagonia[?]) that are more positive forces in the garment industry?


    Alan Tomlinson

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