Sewing Women: Immigrants and the New York City Garment Industry PDF by Margaret M. Chin


Sewing Women: Immigrants and the New York City Garment Industry
By Margaret M. Chin

Sewing women

acknowledgment s v i i
introduction 1
chapte r 1 Legacies: New York City Garment Industry 7
chapte r 2 Doing Ethnic Business 22
chapte r 3 Getting from There to Here 38
chapte r 4 The Attractions of Cloth 56
chapte r 5 What Employers Want 80
chapte r 6 Landing Work 101
chapte r 7 The Bottom Line 119
chapte r 8 Immigrants and the Economy 140
e p i logue 148
ap pendix Research Design and Methodology 153
note s 171
b i bl i og raphy 181
index 187

Since the mid-1800s garment work in New York City has been associated with immigration.Immigrants, from Eastern Europeans to today’s Asians, have always been in the industry. In the mid-1990s, while doing fieldwork in the Chinese garment shops, I discovered, to my surprise, that the Chinese were not the only ones left in this industry. Korean immigrants operated a sector almost as large.

Although the Chinese hired unionized, immigrant coethnic women, the Koreans did not—they hired mostly undocumented Mexican and Ecuadorian men and women.The two sectors are structured very differently, not only in terms of who is working but in terms of pay and even in terms of how the work floor is organized. However, these two sectors coexist in the very competitive New York City environment.How can both sectors be viable?

In this book I examine the role that garment work has played in these contemporary immigrants’ lives. In particular, I consider the relationships between the owners and workers and ask when ethnic relationships are helpful and when they are not and how immigration status and gender condition workers’ lives. By examining the processes that Mexican, Ecuadorian, and Chinese immigrants use to get jobs, I explore the tensions between coethnic obligation and economic necessity and try to understand how they result in coethnic exploitation or cooperation. Gender and immigration are important factors in the work opportunities that the Chinese employers and workers have. In turn, their opportunities are very different from those available to Korean employers and their Mexican and Ecuadorian workers.

For most immigrants work is central to survival in the United States; thus few would envision emigrating unless they were aware of work opportunities. Work is not just a means to earn money to survive: it plays a large role in the so cietal status of Chinese,Koreans, Mexicans, and Ecuadorians. Many intermediary factors determine how and where immigrants get jobs. Immigration status and the long-term goals of the individuals (to become U.S. citizens or to return to their home country) affect the kinds of jobs that they strive for and are willing to take.Wages, work hours, and benefits are important considerations if an individual has family and children in the United States. Given a choice, immigrants favor jobs that complement their household roles as parents, providers, or supporters of relatives overseas. Only in this context should we examine how ethnicity and coethnic ties matter.These bonds can be used to advance work prospects—that is, to gain access to jobs and higher wages.They can be positive when members reap benefits from ethnic ties.The ties can also be constraining when they are used to limit access to jobs or other economic opportunities. The differences between the sectors suggest that the employment market does not operate solely on the basis of free market assumptions—that is, that immigrants will work wherever they can get the highest wages.These immigrants mostly end up in the narrowest settings, which suggests that a number of forces are channeling these immigrants into the garment industry.Are these forces connected to ethnicity and ethnic bonds? How important are structural factors, including route of emigration, neighborhoods, or the way the industry is organized? And to what degree does gender role dictate where an immigrant works? What I found was that immigration status, ethnicity, and gender are intertwined and cannot be totally disaggregated. Examining immigration status and gender provides insight into the specific mechanisms and conditions that alternately turn ethnic ties into resources or barriers in the pursuit of employment.

Why Garment Workers?
Garment workers and garment work have always intrigued me. I often wondered why the clothing manufacturing process has remained the same for more than one hundred years. I am the daughter of a former garment worker, and the factories that I remember visiting as a young child looked very similar to the ones I visited for this study.While I was doing my research, most of my aunts were still working in factories in Chinatown.They all worked for the Chinese, and the majority of their own coworkers were also Chinese. Chinatown seemed to be filled with coethnic enterprises that brought money and jobs into the community. Garment work was only one of these enterprises.Although no one would dispute the benefits of the jobs and money that the garment industry provides for the community, many workers wished that their employers were white and not coethnic Chinese. Some felt that they were being exploited.

Others thought that conditions might be better uptown in the factories owned by the older Jewish and Italian employers. I wondered why such a sharp gendered division of labor exists among the Chinese, with the majority of the women working in the garment industry and most of the men working in restaurants. I realized that the majority of studies were written with data collected only from the employers and that Chinese workers might have something very different to say.

While doing fieldwork with the Chinese, I discovered that Korean immigrants also worked in the garment sewing shops, not as workers but as employers. They hired undocumented Ecuadorians and Mexicans, both men and women. I initially thought that these two ethnic groups—Chinese and Hispanics1—working in the garment industry were more similar, in general, than different, and it turned out that my data supports this conclusion. Coethnicity may have little to do with how work is organized; in fact, how people get hired, trained, and paid may be a result of the route of emigration taken by the worker, the role that the worker plays in the family, the neighborhood where the factories are located, and the structural conditions in the industry. For example, I found that some aspects of the Chinese sector, like low wages, could be overlooked and dismissed as industry standards, while an informal training program could be overidealized into a version of coethnic harmony and benefit.How do we know this if we do not compare this to the noncoethnic sector? This study is not meant to discount the advantages that accrue from coethnic relationships, but potential disadvantages should also be analyzed.

Thus I needed to examine exactly when these coethnic resources are used and why, how they differ from resources in noncoethnic relationships, what kind of benefits can be derived from them, how those benefits differ among the minority groups, and how they lead to different outcomes among the different minority groups.

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