Monitoring Sweatshops: Workers, Consumers, and the Global Apparel industry/Globalization and Cross-Border Labor Solidarity in the Americas: The Anti-Sweatshop Movement and the Struggle for Social Justice

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Monitoring sweatshops: Workers, consumers, and the global apparel industry. By Jill ESBENSHADE. Philadelphia, PA, Temple University Press, 2004. xv + 272 pp. Figures, tables, appendices, bibliography, index. ISBN 1-59213-255-3.

Globalization and cross-border labor solidarity in the Americas: The anti-sweatshop movement and the struggle for social justice. By Ralph ARMBRUSTER-SANDOVAL. xi + 223 pp. Figures, tables, glossary, notes, bibliography. New York, NY, Routledge. ISBN 0-415-94957-2.

Sweatshops remain a potent symbol of the downside of globalization in our consumer society. With the signing of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in August 2005 and the considerable expansion of apparel assembly in China, opportunities for factory exploitation are becoming even more pronounced. Throughout the United States, Canada and Europe, public exposés have portrayed degraded working conditions in sweatshops at home and abroad: excessive hours, lack of health protection and benefits, mistreatment of women workers, threats and blacklisting of union activists, and very low pay. Consumers have responded by pressuring brand retailers and manufacturers to improve working conditions in sweatshops. At the same time, those working in such conditions have courageously demanded change.

Facing a world leadership that champions "free trade" as the solution to demands for labour and environmental rights, advocates of "sweat-free" products have resisted with various strategies. Two recent books, both by former students of University of California Professor Edna Bonacick, describe the benefits and drawbacks of two counter-forces in the garment industry: sweatshop monitoring and union organizing. Jill Esbenshade's Monitoring sweatshops presents the best empirical overview to date of what watchful monitoring can do and has accomplished. In Globalization and cross-border labor solidarity in the Americas, Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval lucidly describes the remarkable achievements of women from four central American nations who formed apparel unions against incredible odds, and sometimes gained contracts. Both authors bring to the subject an array of methodological tools: historical comparisons, worker testimonies and ethnographies, extensive interviews with a wide variety of stakeholders, participant observation, ethnomethodology, and meticulous and painstaking inclusion of quantitative and qualitative data to create a coherent narrative and analysis. However, both approaches also show how the larger realities of globalization have challenged the gains of anti-sweatshop advocates.

Esbenshade makes several key arguments about company-created monitoring systems. First, she believes that however well-intentioned the "sweat-free" indicators and subcontractor inspections, the auditing approach represents a major retreat from the social contract system that characterized industrial relations in the United States after the second World War. Under the social contract, employers, workers and governments formally or informally negotiated fair work conditions and compensation. By introducing private (i.e. companycontrolled) monitoring in the early 1990s, largely at the instigation of a United States Department of Labor which had insufficient resources to keep tabs on the growing immigrant labour force, companies replaced the social contract with the "social accountability contract." Under the new approach, companies developed an internal code that committed them to compliance with health and safety laws, minimum wages, and labour legislation. However, they downplayed the International Labour Organization's (ILO) principles of collective bargaining, and prevented workers from having a direct say in their own employment situation. Instead, consumers became the new arbiters of labour conditions.

Esbenshade's second point is that enterprises were then able to manipulate monitoring to their advantage as a public relations gimmick to further promote · their own products. …