Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Rethinking Flexibility: The Case of the Apparel Industry

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Rethinking Flexibility: The Case of the Apparel Industry

Article excerpt


Macroeconomic changes, labor market alterations, the growth of a more integrated world economy, and micro-electronic innovations in communication technology have in recent years undermined the effectiveness of Fordist systems of mass production (Sabel and Piore 1984; Kolko 1988; Ross and Trachte 1990; Kenney and Florida 1993). Predicated on the use of mechanized technology to facilitate high-volume standardized output in long production runs, Fordism embodies a work design using unskilled and semi-skilled workers performing routinized simple tasks to produce standardized products.

To escape the rigidities implicit in Fordism, as well as improving their competitive position in increasingly segmented markets, some firms have experimented with flexible production systems that are better suited to fluctuating demand, the need for shortened product development time, and competition based on quality rather than price (Dicken 1992). In terms of work organization, such changes have resulted in the creation of innovative human resource management strategies, most of which are associated with "high performance workplaces" (Osterman 1992). Such workplaces suggest radically different ways of organizing the work and production process, principally built around the notion of flexibility and often referred to as "post-Fordism."

This paper argues that flexible production is possible without a departure from the routinized jobs characteristic of Fordism. While organizational changes within and between firms have occurred, it will be shown, they are often part of flexibility drives squarely predicated upon deskilling, wage depression, and labor intensification. In examining such changes, I show how internal labor markets (ILMs) characteristic of vertically integrated firms are being replaced by labor market segmentation between firms in networks. As part of a systematic pattern of "organized vertical disintegration" (Sayer 1989), firms are downsizing and subcontracting work to smaller firms who remain dependent upon them in a hierarchically structured network. Subsequent automation results in job loss for the high skilled, high paid workers in the core firms. For those workers in subordinate firms in the emerging hierarchical network, work remains semi-skilled and largely labor-intensive. This is very different from the innovative workplace practices involving multi-skilling and increased worker autonomy that many argue are central to the flexible production systems of post-Fordism.

Using data from the US apparel industry to illustrate my argument, I show how firms have pursued different approaches in their search for flexibility, with each depending on product and labor market characteristics as well as buyer-supplier pressures unique to particular industry sectors. What I term an organizational approach builds upon established patterns of decentralized production. In such instances, extensive subcontracting permits small (core) firms to export labor intensive and low value-added tasks to other (subordinate) small firms, loosely integrated in a hierarchical network. In the second approach, termed technological, generally larger firms are using microprocessor technology to substitute machines for skilled labor and further routinize less skilled functional tasks.

Firms in highly volatile product markets, where production runs are short and flexibility means speedy delivery of goods to market, are more likely to adopt the first approach. Such is the pattern of the more fashion sensitive women's wear sector of the apparel industry. Larger firms, in standardized product markets such as men's wear and knit goods, look for inventory and raw materials savings, shortened throughput cycles, and ways to reduce their dependence on skilled workers. They are more likely to use the technological approach. Neither are mutually exclusive and evidence of both approaches can be found in each sector of the industry. …

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