Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Global Women's Work: Historical Perspectives on the Textile and Garment Industries

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Global Women's Work: Historical Perspectives on the Textile and Garment Industries

Article excerpt

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. …

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