Monday, July 10, 2006

Hello there! Welcome to “sweating it.”

This blog will serve as a place to document my evolving thoughts on a thesis project I am about to tackle as a Women’s Studies major at Duke, tentatively titled “Fashion, Free Trade, and Feminism: Linking Women as Producers to Women as Consumers in the Global Apparel Industry.” This project was born out of my summer work with the Women’s Edge Coalition, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for international economic/trade policies that support women worldwide in their efforts to end poverty in their lives, communities, and nations. Edge’s Global Opportunity for Women Campaign was inspired by the key theme I use in my project title: connecting women as both the world’s primary producers and consumers of apparel/handicrafts. My honors project will take this work one step further, by showing how we can use these connections to affect change in the global apparel industry. While the majority of the world’s 1.5 billion people living on less than a dollar a day are women, women also control global spending to the tune of about $7 trillion. This leaves one daunting question to try to answer: How can we use the feminization of consumerism to address the feminization of poverty, at least in the context of the apparel industry?

About the title: I learned about the origin of the term “sweatshop” from a book called No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade, and the Rights of Garment Workers. Here’s what they say about it:

“Historically, sweating refers to the system of subcontract which, in contrast to the integrated and supervised factory system, consists of the farming out of work by competing manufacturers to competing contractors. Sweating was indigenous to garment production because of its division of labor, separating the craft processes of design, marketing, and cutting from the labor-intensive sewing and finishing, and organized around a three-tier system of small producers—the inside shop, the contractor, and the home…subcontracting is no longer the satanic trademark of the garment industry, it has become an aggressive principle of all post-Fordist production, used in auto parts, building maintenance…and every other industry ‘downsizing’ away from economies of scale and mass production.” (13)

“No Sweat,” in addition to being the title of another book, wouldn’t work for my project. As an economist who read my proposal pointed out, anti-free trade feminist crusaders often neglect to recognize that any job might be better than no job if it means the difference between eating and not eating. This is not to say that the modern sweatshop is anything less than a horrific institution, but it does present a reality that we have to think seriously about. If we want to make a difference as feminists in 2006, we have to face the fact that rallying against the passage of free trade agreements may make us a lot of noise, but it’s not giving us any voice at all in the actual contents of these agreements. Supporters of the agreements probably love that we spend our time being against free trade entirely rather than trying to get ILO conventions included that may guarantee decent working conditions in factories, etc.

Similarly, the sweatshop is a reality—after all, it’s “indigenous” to the entire garment industry—and we aren’t getting rid of it as a production model in the post-Fordist economy. To make a difference, we can't just say "no." With a little sweat and tears, however, I think we can change how it operates.