Making Sweatshops

By Tom Sandborn | March 10, 2003

Making Sweatshops: The Globalization of the U.S. Apparel Industry By Ellen Israel Rosen, University of California Press, Berkeley Los Angeles London, 2002. 336 pp.

Sweatshops kill. Sometimes death comes in the quick agony of flame, as it did for the 141 workers who lost their lives in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, trapped in an overcrowded factory with only one fire escape and a broken elevator. But it isn’t all so ancient. Similar mass murder through negligence and heedless profit-taking killed 2,500 Chinese workers in preventable fires in the factory dormitories of Guangdong in 1993, dying to make profits for the toy, apparel and electronics subcontractors that produce for multinationals in China’s burgeoning export processing zones in that southern province.

Like the Triangle fire victims, most of the Chinese workers were young women. Over the last decades, as the world economy has been savagely restructured for maximal profit by the forces of neo-liberalism and capitalist globalization, cheered on by right wing think tanks and enforced by a whole new architecture of trade agreements, lethal sweatshop conditions, once seen as the horrors of the distant past, are making a global comeback, and the majority of their victims are women and children.

Millions of workers, from the Mexican maquiladoras to the export processing zones of Asia to the back streets of Canadian and US cities are living (and dying) on starvation wages, working brutally long hours without adequate safety equipment or health protection. They are often exposed to a life-threatening mix of toxic chemicals and lung-clogging particulate matter. They endure sexual and physical abuse on the job and union-busting violence when they try to organize unions, all in the name of "export driven development", "structural adjustment" and "free trade." When the folks in the transnational boardrooms talk about making a killing in business, they aren’t just making metaphors. Real lives are lost to maximize profit and fill the malls here in the first world, where "the lowest price is the law."

Making Sweatshops, the new study from Ellen Israel Rosen, Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University and author previously of Bitter Choices: Blue Collar Women In and Out of Work, is a calm, authoritative analysis of the impacts the new world economic order is having on apparel industry workers at home and abroad. The garment industry isn’t the only enterprise that has been transformed recently into a sweatshop theme park by the new capitalism, but, with its predatory use of young women, its runaway factories that flee to new jurisdictions at the first suggestion of union organizing or government regulation, its extensive use of contractors and subcontractors, its global reach and its crippling, lethal impact on the lives of workers, it serves as a first rate case study, embodying most of what is most noxious and dysfunctional in the system.

Rosen is not a polemicist. Her interest is analysis, not denunciation, and her tone is cool and level throughout. Her manifest disinterest in rhetoric makes her findings all the more damning.

Perhaps the most important contribution of this book is its clear and step-by-step analysis of the ways in which American foreign policy decisions have contributed to the re-emergence of the sweat shop as a global phenomenon. We are subjected to a great deal of argument in the mainstream media on a daily basis that portrays globalization and the market as forces of nature, rolling over the world’s surface like great fiscal tsunamis, inevitable, irresistible and beyond human choice. This is, of course, self-justifying bunk, propagated by the folks who profit from these phenomena. However, the impact of endless and well-financed repetition is to make even arrant nonsense oddly plausible. Making Sweatshops is a good antidote. Rosen details the Cold War policies of the 50’s through 80’s and the "free trade" initiatives of the last decades of the 20th century, the decisions which have nurtured global sweatshop revival.

Canada, of course, is not immune to this phenomenon. Vas Guanaratna, a Vancouver organizer with the Union of Needle Trade, Industrial and Textile Employees, estimates that somewhere between ten and twenty percent of our nation’s garment trade workers suffer under sweatshop conditions at work. A recent union organizing drive in a Mission plant has been plagued with allegations of management-inspired assaults on union activists, punitive firings and fraud in a representation vote. Despite such challenges, UNITE has successfully organized over 20 factories in BC, and close to 17% of Canadian garment workers enjoy the protections that go with a union contract.

Meanwhile, Canadian students, human rights activists and trade unionists are active across the country in national campaigns to establish "No Sweat" procurement policies for universities and municipal governments. Such policies, which use public purchasing power to require that suppliers contract to respect basic labour rights if they want business from the university or the city, can be a powerful tactic to support sweatshop workers as they organize together to establish and protect their human rights. Locally, a coalition of Simon Fraser students, Oxfam Canada, the CLC and member unions at SFU are campaigning to establish No Sweat policies at the university and in the municipalities of Vancouver and Burnaby. (Full disclosure- this reviewer is a participant in the local campaign, and makes no pretense to neutrality on these matters.)

If you are concerned about the cost in human misery sewn into the shirt on your back, Making Sweatshops is a good place to begin. The book offers wide-ranging research, a clear, serviceable prose style and a quiet but evident passion for justice. For more information on sweatshop issues, the websites listed below are useful resources: ,,,

(944 w.)March 10, 2003


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