Free Trade and Uneven Development: The North American Apparel Industry after NAFTA

By Gary Gereffi; David Spener et al. | Go to book overview

5 The New Sweatshops in the
United States: How New, How Real,
How Many, and Why?

Robert J. S. Ross


Introduction

Starting in the late 1970s, investigative journalists noticed what they understood as the reemergence of extreme exploitation of laborers in the domestic United States apparel industry (e.g., Buck 1979). Academic studies of the issue began to appear in the early 1980s (Ross and Trachte 1983). But two challenges confront the idea that sweatshops are reemerging. One challenge contends that, like the poor, whom “always ye have with you” (John 12:8), sweatshops were always with us, never really going away (Proper 1997a; Alman 1997; Ross 1997). At the other extreme, one of the most knowledgeable of all sociologists studying the apparel industry has argued in a highly technical paper that sweatshops do not exist (Waldinger and Lapp 1993). He and his colleague have not been refuted in print. The task of determining whether the new sweatshops are new—indeed, whether they exist at all—is not a trivial exercise.

Assuming for the moment that sweatshops do exist, if they are new, then, logically, they must have disappeared or become quantitatively insignificant at some point. Causal explanation would require isolating the conditions that changed.

The first task of this chapter is to show the extent of sweatshop exploitation in the apparel industry in the current period. This part of the chapter meets Roger Waldinger’s challenge: The answer to “How real?” is subsumed in the answer to “How many?” The next challenge is to show that the type of superexploitation of labor termed “sweatshop” became quantitatively insignificant for some period of time before the late 1960s. This constitutes a response to the question “How new?”

I answer the question of why the new sweatshops emerged by discussing changes in industrial structure, world trade, and state regulatory capacity. The theoretical framework in the background is that of Global Capitalism (Ross and Trachte 1990). While Robert Ross and Kent Trachte used the concept of “the disaggregation of the production process over space,” the term global commodity chains (Gereffi and Korzeniewicz 1994) is both more euphonious and in wider usage among sociologists, and I employ it here. I also touch briefly on the concept “informal economy.”

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