Global women's work: historical perspectives on the textile and garment industries.

Author:English, Beth
Position:Entrenched Challenges
 
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Processes long underway the movement of capital and technology from the North to the South, the decline of economic nationalism, the development of global supply chains, and the profit motive that has created a race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions--disproportionately and negatively affect female wage earners. This is especially salient for women employed in textiles and garment manufacture, as these women regularly work long hours for low wages in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. While textile and apparel jobs provide women with paid employment and, in many cases, a first step out of abject poverty, these industries are often the first established in the process of industrial development. The normative standards of labor in these industries have remained remarkably static across time and place, challenging today's workers, activists, policymakers, and international organizations to develop viable strategies for addressing a long-entrenched status quo. Through historical analysis, this article explores the development of gender norms and workplace standards that continue to shape the day-to-day realities of women working in the global textile and garment industries and possible points of agency in the context of these realities.

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The modern age of globalization offers a unique opportunity for reflection and analysis on the role of the 1.3 billion women in the worldwide labor force. In spite of the 2007 global economic recession, women's labor force participation has remained steady at a rate of 52 percent over the twenty-year period from 1990 to 2010, while that of men declined 4 percent. (1) At the end of 2012, the service sector employed approximately half of the female labor force, agriculture employed a third, and industry employed a sixth. (2) It is in this last category where female wage earners are negatively affected by processes that have long been underway: the movement of capital and technology from the North to the South; the decline of economic nationalism; the development of global supply chains; and the profit motive that has created a race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions. This is especially salient for women employed in textiles and garment manufacture; women in these industries regularly work long hours for low wages in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. While textile and apparel jobs provide women with paid employment and, in many cases, a first step out of abject poverty, these industries are often the first established in the process of industrial development. The normative standards of labor in these industries have remained remarkably static across time and place, and it has proved challenging for today's workers, activists, policymakers, and international organizations to develop viable strategies for addressing a long-entrenched status quo.

WOMEN'S WORK, WOMEN'S WAGES

In textile manufacture and apparel assembly, a legacy of broadly accepted, entrenched commonalities in labor recruitment patterns, work conditions, and industry standards exists, These commonalities span both time and distance--from the textile mills of Lowell in the early nineteenth century, to the apparel workshops in New York City and the textile mills scattered throughout the U.S. South in the early twentieth century, to the mills and garment assembly factories in export processing zones and growing manufacturing centers in the world today. Historically, the textile and garment industries are the first established in developing economies because capitalization requirements and start-up costs are relatively low, and production does not require a highly skilled workforce. The industrialization of developing economies, specifically those transitioning away from agriculture, creates an inexpensive surplus pool of young and female laborers, many of whom are initially employed in the textile and apparel industries. The historic rubric remains the same today: industrial work in textile and garment assembly jobs provides an entry point for participation by rural women in the formal economy.

Labor constitutes a high proportion of overall production costs in basic textiles and garment manufacture, but the margin of value added to goods in the manufacturing process is low. (3) To maximize profits, manufacturers often depress wages and attempt to control costs related to labor by minimizing the size and reducing the quality of workspaces, while maximizing the number of work hours per day. These economic considerations dovetail with historically gendered notions of women's work and wages, both of which are devalued in the milieu of industrial production. The jobs available to the increasing number of women moving into waged work during the Western period of industrialization, from the late eighteenth into the early twentieth centuries, stemmed from the prejudices based on the productive and reproductive roles women played within the household. Gendered wage structures emerged from the idea that women were subjugates within a male-headed household, performing labor supplemental to that undertaken by the breadwinning male. A woman's wages were therefore set to assumptions of need as opposed to value, productivity, or skill. The broad acceptance of assumptions about gender differences, of social prescriptions defining a woman's proper place to be in the home, and of notions about women's secondary status within a family economy have profoundly shaped options, opportunities, and remuneration for women's paid employment from the earliest days of industrial production--an acceptance that continues to resonate and limit opportunities for women today. (4)

Mass production of textiles and garments originated from local entrepreneurs' practice of putting out spinning, weaving, and sewing work to women in their homes. Productive work that was traditionally done by female members of a household became a part of broader market changes. In the countryside of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century New England, for example, the concurrent growth of market-oriented agricultural production and the development of transportation infrastructure--which facilitated the development of local and regional markets coupled with the growth of urban markets, wrought profound changes on rural life, household production, and women's roles within the family economy. As New England's farming families adapted to and participated in this emerging market economy--in which self-sufficient household-based production and local networks of barter and exchange were fundamentally altered by the market transitions--women's labor in the household became increasingly expendable. (5) Female labor was more valuable as a source of cash wages, first through the taking in of traditionally female-made goods for manufacture, then later in a factory setting when the first generation of textile operatives began working in the mills of Lowell, Lawrence, Springfield, and Chicopee in the 1820s to 1840s. These trends have not changed: rural development agendas and large-scale commercial agribusiness continue to alter the economies of rural landscapes, pushing women from farms into factories, mills, and workshops.

While the transitions from agriculture to industry and from household to factory production signaled a changing era, the unpaid and undervalued work of women who ran the households, managed day-to-day organization, and cared for the homes and children remained the same. This reality reinforced and defined women's status within the waged labor force: women were secondary, supplemental, and temporary. While the expectation was that a female wage earner would leave her wage-earning job for marriage and childbearing, the reality was that women often worked a "double day" of full-time work in mills and factories along with full-time work raising children, washing laundry, and preparing meals. This still has not changed. Clara Thrift, who sewed underwear seams in a North Carolina factory in the 1950s, remembered that she would "work all day, come home and put out a wash, fix dinner, clean up the kitchen, get the kids' things ready for school the next day, get them to bed, and then sometimes [would] be up to three or four in the morning mopping floors and ironing." (6) Thrift would undoubtedly recognize the typical day of her twenty-first century counterpart in Bangladesh, who "rising at 4 a.m. ... worked for two hours on household chores then walked for an hour to the garment factory where she worked until 10 or 11 o'clock at night. After another hour's walk home she spent two hours on housework, after which she lay down at 2 a.m. to sleep--for two hours." (7)

As the textile industry matured, more men joined the ranks of textile operatives and new technologies were introduced. (8) In this context, gender continued to shape both work assignments in the mill and wages paid. The sexual division of labor common in late nineteenth century U.S. textile mills reflected and reinforced contemporary and gendered notions of physical traits. These notions merged with the increasingly widespread use of new machinery in the 1870s and 1880s, which mill owners and managers widely believed women were "especially adapted" for because of their nimbleness, dexterity, deftness, and small fingers, further perpetuating gendered divisions of labor. (9)

The introduction of ring spinning machines in the 1870s automated much of the work that was formerly done by high-wage, skilled craftsmen. By deskilling spinning work, this technology was an important driver of the wage depression that disproportionally affected women in the textile mills. (10) The Northrop automatic loom, invented in 1895 and still used today, mechanized weaving work and made it more efficient, thus increasing the number of looms one worker could capably tend. (11) This decreased the wages paid per loom, a phenomenon that "would not attract men" who were seeking...

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