Unmaking the Global Sweatshop: Health and Safety of the World's Garment Workers

Unmaking the Global Sweatshop: Health and Safety of the World's Garment Workers

Unmaking the Global Sweatshop: Health and Safety of the World's Garment Workers

Unmaking the Global Sweatshop: Health and Safety of the World's Garment Workers


The 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza, an eight-story garment factory in Savar, Bangladesh, killed over a thousand workers and injured hundreds more. This disaster exposed the brutal labor conditions of the global garment industry and revealed its failures as a competitive and self-regulating industry. Over the past thirty years, corporations have widely adopted labor codes on health and safety, yet too often in their working lives, garment workers across the globe encounter death, work-related injuries, and unhealthy factory environments. Disasters such as Rana Plaza notwithstanding, garment workers routinely work under conditions that not only escape public notice but also undermine workers' long-term physical health, mental well-being, and the very sustainability of their employment.

Unmaking the Global Sweatshop gathers the work of leading anthropologists and ethnographers studying the global garment industry to examine the relationship between the politics of labor and initiatives to protect workers' health and safety. Contributors analyze both the labor processes required of garment workers as well as the global dynamics of outsourcing and subcontracting that produce such demands on workers' health. The accounts contained in Unmaking the Global Sweatshop trace the histories of labor standards for garment workers in the global South; explore recent partnerships between corporate, state, and civil society actors in pursuit of accountable corporate governance; analyze a breadth of initiatives that seek to improve workers' health standards, from ethical trade projects to human rights movements; and focus on the ways in which risk, health, and safety might be differently conceptualized and regulated. Unmaking the Global Sweatshop argues for an expansive understanding of garment workers' lived experiences that recognizes the politics of labor, human rights, the privatization and individualization of health-related responsibilities as well as the complexity of health and well-being.


Geert De Neve and Rebecca Prentice

Academic writing, media representations, and consumer activist discussions of labor conditions in the global South almost always center on pay and the living wage, overtime and working hours, freedom of association, unfree labor, and, above all, child labor, with Western consumers being particularly concerned about buying products tainted with the blood and sweat of children. the health and safety of workers employed in exportoriented garment industries usually receives scant attention. the International Labour Organization (ILO) does not even consider the right not to be injured at work a “core” labor right (Spieler 2006). When catastrophic industrial disasters occur, such as the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, public outcry sometimes leads to greater scrutiny of the structural safety of buildings, equipment, and workplaces, but the everyday health and well-being of garment workers continues to be neglected. This volume, by contrast, seeks to rethink this perspective by giving visibility to the health concerns of garment workers across the globe and by placing the whole spectrum of work-related health and well-being issues at the center of analysis.

Health—while sometimes mentioned indirectly as part of assessments of working conditions and production pressures—has rarely been studied as a direct entry into garment workers’ lives. And, yet, most of the issues around working conditions listed above have an immediate effect on workers’ health and on their well-being more generally. Overtime pressures and the lack of a living wage, for example, are largely experienced through bodily and embodied processes. They often translate directly into poor physical health or manifest themselves as mental health issues experienced through anxiety, fear . . .

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