Monday, January 1, 2018

Collins, Jane. Threads: Gender, Labor, and Power in the Global Apparel Industry

Collins, Jane. 2003. Threads: Gender, Labor, and Power in the Global Apparel Industry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Collins uses a case study ethnography method to perform a commodity chain analysis in the global apparel industry. In it, she examines four firms: Tultex, Confitek, Burlmex, and Liz Claiborne.

Tultex and Liz Claiborne are two very different companies. Tultex mass produced sweatshirts and you've probably never heard of them. It actually produced the sweatshirts in its factories in Virginia, for decades, until it went out of business shortly after Collins performed her research there. Liz Claiborne designs and markets branded fashion apparel but it makes nothing; subcontractors produce the garments. Unlike the nearly identical sweatshirts Tultex workers made every day, Liz Claiborne sells many different styles with great variation.

Some theorists believed that jobs performing simpler work like producing Tultex sweatshirts would leave the U.S. for the Global South but the more complex work of producing apparel for Liz Claiborne would stay in the U.S. due to the level of skill required for the job. In fact, that is not the case. Liz Claiborne was a pioneer of offshoring production in the industry.

The other two firms are both in Aguascalientes, Mexico. One produced apparel for Tultex; the other for Liz Claiborne. The production processes in the two were remarkably similar. Both used a 'progressive bundle' system and paid piece-rate for the number of bundles a worker produced. The major difference is that Burlmex, which produced for Liz Claiborne, used a statistical quality control method. Using statistical quality control, a number of measurements and assessments are made of each worker's work. The measurements are graphed and tracked, and workers must stay within a certain range. This might be a quantitative measurement, like the depth of a seam, or a qualitative one. Instead of hiring more experienced or higher skilled workers, this company hires low skilled workers and controls them more tightly.

Both firms take a low road strategy of hiring unskilled workers, paying them little, offering them few benefits, and working them hard. The workers under statistical quality control are particularly stressed. Turnover is frequent and expected, if not built in. They recruit from a large geographic area, up to two hours from the factories. This gives them a larger pool to hire from to deal with turnover, but also means that some workers have an extra four hours of travel time added to each workday and that increases the stress. Additionally, the companies seek a docile labor force to put up with the stressful conditions and low pay, and they hire mostly women. The jobs given to men (operating machines) have higher pay.

Another theme in the book is that although globalization seems placeless, nowhere and everywhere, we can see examples of it in real places, affecting real people and communities. Terms like "offshoring" and "outsourcing" sound like nameless, faceless concepts, but Collins describes real factories that hired real workers in two cities. When a company selects a location for a factory, it must work with local laws, politics, norms, language, and other facets of that particular place. Collins examines how these companies adapt to each place in their workplace, their relationship with the community, and in terms of social reproduction. In terms of the community, she mentions how they work with the legal and political systems, whether they pollute, whether they invest in the communities, whether they offer daycare, whether they house workers or provide them transportation to work, etc. They are also interfacing with the local labor market. In this case, she mentions Tultex's paternalism in Virginia (until the workers unionized), comparing it to the subcontracted workers in Mexico who had no immediate relations with the U.S. firms employing them. The two parties (the workers and the U.S. companies) were connected by a general manager who ran the Mexican firm and dealt with both the U.S. company and the Mexican workers. The general manager was socially distant from the workers despite living in the same country. It was only relatively minor supervisors who had family and friends and other outside relationships with those they supervised. (This was not so for Tultex in its town in Virginia.) Collins says that by outsourcing to Mexico, the U.S. companies deterritorialize the social relations of work.

The nature of subcontracting makes the bargaining position of workers' worse. Contractors bid for jobs, trying to give the lowest price in order to win the contract. This drives down wages. But the low wages workers can get when the contractor wins a contract are better than the no wages they would get at all if their employer increased their wages and but got no contracts because it could not offer the best price.

The third area is social reproduction. Do employers pay a living wage so that workers can raise families and educate their children? In the case of the two Mexican firms in this book, they do not. Employers use their workers' gender against them, claiming that because they are women, their income is supplemental, so they do not need to earn enough to raise a family on. Of course this is ridiculous, as many women do not have a husband who earns more than they do, or any husband at all. Collins then speculates that the high turnover rate is desirable to firms because workers do not stick around long enough to organize and demand higher wages or better conditions.