Unraveling the Garment Industry: Transnational Organizing and Women’s Work by Ethel C. Brooks


Unraveling the Garment Industry: Transnational Organizing and Women’s Work
by Ethel C. Brooks


List of Acronyms ix
Introduction xiii
1. Children, Schools, and Labored Questions 1
2. Organizing in Times of (Post)War 26
3. Th e Ideal of Transnational Organizing 54
4. Disciplining Bodies 82
5. Women First? 114
6. Living Proof 138
Epilogue: Gender and the Work of Branding 163
Acknowledgments 173
Notes 177
Bibliography 203
Index 219


AAFLI Asian-American Free Labor Institute
AALC African-American Labor Center
ACTWU Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union
AFL–CIO American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations
AIFLD American Institute of Free Labor Development
AIP Apparel Industry Partnership
ASIC Asociación Salvadoreña de la Industria de la Confección
(Salvadoran Garment Industry Association)
ASTTEL Salvadoran Association of Telecommunications Workers
ATEMISA Association of Mandarin International Workers, the
company union at Mandarin International
BGMEA Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association
BIGU(F) Bangladesh Independent Garment Union (Federation)
BRAC Bangladesh Rural Action Committee
CAFTA Central American Free Trade Agreement
CBI Caribbean Basin Initiative
CENTRA Centro de Estudios del Trabajo (Center for Labor Studies in San Salvador)
CEP Council for Economic Priorities
CISPES Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador
CLR Campaign for Labor Rights
CNTS Centro Nacional de Trabajadores Salvadoreños (National
Center of Salvadoran Workers)
CODEH Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras
COSDEMA Coordinating Group for Dignifi ed Employment in the Maquila
CSWA Chinese Staff and Workers Association
CTD Central de Trabajadores Democráticos (Democratic Workers’ Central)
CTS Central de Trabajadores Salvadoreños (Salvadoran Workers’ Central)
EPZ export processing zone, sometimes called free trade zone
(FTZ), or zona franca in Spanish
FEASIES Federación de Asociaciones y Sindicatos Independientes
de El Salvador (Federation of Independent Associations
and Unions of El Salvador)
FENASTRAS Federación Nacional Sindical de Trabajadores
Salvadoreños (National Union Federation of Salvadoran Workers)
FLA Fair Labor Agreement
FMLN Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional
(Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front)
FTUI Free Trade Union Institute
FTZ free trade zone, also known as export processing zone
(EPZ), or zona franca in Spanish
FUSADES Fundación Salvadoreño de Desarrollo Económico y
Social (Salvadoran Foundation of Economic and Social
GMIES Grupo de Monitoreo Independiente de El Salvador
(Independent Monitoring Group of El Salvador)
GSS Gonoshahajjo Sangstha, Bangladeshi children’s advocacy
ICA Inter-Church Action for Development, Relief, and Justice
ILGWU International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union
ILO International Labor Organization
IMF International Monetary Fund
INS U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, now the
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
ISSS Instituto Salvadoreño de Seguridad Social (Salvadoran Social Security Institute)
JIT just-in-time production system of fl exible subcontracting
MAM Movimiento de Mujeres Mélida Anaya Montes (Mélida
Anaya Montes Women’s Organization in El Salvador)
MOU memorandum of understanding to phase out child labor
from the Bangladeshi export-oriented garment industry
NACLA North American Congress on Latin America
NGWF National Garment Workers Federation of Bangladesh
NIDL new international division of labor
NLC National Labor Committee
NMASS National Mobilization against Sweatshops
SETMI Sindicato de Empresa de Trabajadores de Mandarin
International (International Factory Union of Workers of Mandarin International)
SITEMSAL Sindicato de Empresa Maquila de El Salvador
Tk taka (Bangladeshi currency)
UBINIG Bengali acronym for Research on Alternatives to
UNITE Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees
UNITE HERE Product of the merger between UNITE and the Hotel
Employees and Restaurant Employees International
Union (HERE)
UNOC Unión Nacional Obrero Campesino (National Worker–
Peasant Movement)
UNTS Unión Nacional de Trabajadores Salvadoreños (National
Union of Salvadoran Workers)
UPD Unidad Popular y Democrático (Popular and
Democratic Unity)
USAID U.S. Association for International Development
USAS United Students against Sweatshops
USDOL U.S. Department of Labor
VIM vertically integrated manufacturing

Since the middle of the 1990s, the globalization of manufacturing has given rise to the globalization of industrial protest. Movements to improve working conditions have organized cross-border campaigns, bringing together labor activists and consumers in the United States and Europe with labor organizers, workers, and activists in manufacturing sites to protest labor violations in factories that subcontract production for large, multinational retailers. Like the corporations they oppose, the tactics of transnational campaigns increasingly work to aff ect a product’s image and the way it is marketed and consumed; furthermore, antisweatshop campaigns themselves employ third world women garment workers—their bodies, labor, representations, and testimonies—in the production of transnational protest.

Th is book focuses on three protest campaigns against abusive labor practices in international garment manufacturing, an industry that exemplifies the most advanced forms of globalization, vertically integrated manufacturing and subcontracting, labor intensity, and corporate image making. By concentrating on working conditions on shop fl oors, in garment production regimes, and in transnational activist coalitions, my research examines the logic, origins, objectives, and consequences of transnational campaigns for workers’ rights. I am among the fi rst to investigate transnational industrial protest through a multisite study.

I take the discursive and material formations of globalization and transnationality in order to put forth a critique of new imperial formations and to explore the gendered, sexual, raced, and classed subjectivities that are both remainders and reconfi gurations of earlier colonial formations. Methodologically, this work is centered on multisited ethnography and combines it with analyses of political economy as consumption and production, transnational activism, gendered agency, and the possibilities of new forms of labor organizing. I explore hegemonic representations and mythologies of globalization and the place of the local, the problematics of political economy and method, and the formation of modernity as technology, as constitutive outside, and as contradiction. I address broader issues such as the particular historical contexts and localities of garment production and protest and the notion of rights within movements that attempt to bridge divides between the fi rst world and the third world within a context of transnational activism. Th roughout, I maintain an analysis of women’s bodies as central to production, consumption, and protest; I question the ways in which gendered, raced bodies of third world women are portrayed as victims or models and what the relation of such representations is to criteria of consumption and production.

I chose to focus on transnational protest in the garment industry for a number of reasons. First, for the past two decades, the garment industry has been at the center of scholarship around the new international division of labor and the feminization of the shop fl oor.1 Second, transnational labor protest, with few exceptions, has targeted garment retailers, citing their piece-rate payment system, exceptional mobility, and the complex levels of subcontracting through which production goals are met. For both activists and scholars, garment production has been emblematic of globalization, both in its exceptionally mobile production practices and in its dual identity as a producer of clothing, or goods, and fashion, or images. Th ird, both sides of the dual identity of garment production—fashion and clothing— have relied on women as producers, consumers, retailers, and models. Th e garment industry and the fashion industry have depended on, reproduced, and shifted gender stereotypes and gender relations in all aspects of everyday life. My aim is to connect these aspects of women’s work—production, globalization, transnational politics, gender identities, and the relations between consumption and image making—to relations of gender, class, race, nation, and sexuality in three transnational protest campaigns in the garment industry.

I explore transnational, consumer-oriented protest campaigns against labor violations of mostly women workers at an export processing zone (EPZ) in El Salvador, against the use of child labor in Bangladesh, and against immigrant sweatshops in New York City. In these campaigns, I focus on the relationship between garment workers, transnational protest campaigns, and the coalitions of consumers and activists sponsoring the campaigns. Th e purpose of transnational protest is to connect corporate image with labor practices in order to improve the latter. Th erefore, a study of how garment workers are represented in the protests and of the material effects of cross-border organizing campaigns on shop fl oors is central to an assessment of their eff ectiveness. My study of transnational campaigns for labor rights, and the coalitions that they engender, sheds light on questions of “global,” and even cross-border, civil society. In fact, it calls into question the possibilities of creating long-lasting transnational social movements or efforts to widen citizenship on a transnational scale.

Since cross-border protest highlights the relationship of production sites to retail outlets and corporate headquarters, companies fi nd it more difficult to leave areas where labor abuses have been documented. However, I shall argue that a protest model that depends on criteria of consumption and public relations campaigns does not necessarily make garment manufacturers more publicly accountable or improve working conditions. Although these tactics of protest seem to fi t the new confi gurations of production, how are workers’ concerns addressed in these tactics? If what we are witnessing is a new, global politics arising in response to new business tactics, whose concerns are being represented and which issues are being left out of the protests?

Th e three campaigns in this study brought together consumers and activists from the North with women workers from the South, and, through media-savvy use of workers’ testimonies, targeted corporations that subcontract in the third world in order to improve labor practices on shop floors. Recently, corporations have become quite susceptible to attacks on their images, their brands, and their corporate reputations. In the past, companies like Sears Roebuck and United Steel were not subject to the same kind of vulnerability to their images and brand names. As more and more areas of life become commodified—with stores like Niketown, which in themselves are leisure destinations, and Disney Worlds circling the globe from Florida to Paris, from California to Japan—branding and advertising are an ever larger part of companies’ expenses, profi t margins, and expansion. 2 Th is study opens up questions around the commodifi cation of images and the new ways in which women’s bodies are commodifi ed in garment production, advertising, and protest.

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