The central question for textile manufacturers has always been how to make more product at lower cost. It’s an ancient problem, first addressed by an ancient technology: the loom. Basic looms are as old as the Stone Age, and the desire to make them stronger, faster, and more productive has driven innovation for thousands of years. The basic technology of garment manufacture is so old that it’s easy for most people to ignore, at least until some quiet new development leads to major societal change.
In 1589 an inventor named William Lee of Nottingham, England, demonstrated a fully mechanized knitting device, the stocking frame, for Queen Elizabeth I. He hoped to obtain a patent on his invention, but Queen Elizabeth refused to grant him one: she immediately sensed that while the invention might make Lee wealthy, it would devastate England’s hand-knitting industry, leaving thousands unemployed.
Lee never found success, but his industrial heirs were undeterred. By the eighteenth century, English textile manufacturers had improved on Lee’s design and added numerous other innovations capable of making textiles more efficiently as well as handling relatively inexpensive materials such as cotton. Textile innovation made Britain a global economic powerhouse and launched the Industrial Revolution. In the United States, textile production fueled the manufacturing economy of the North and the slave-based agriculture economy of the South; between U.S. independence and the Civil War, cotton was both the South’s most important cash crop and the United States’s leading export.
Just as textile manufacture has driven innovation, it’s also driven the labor movement. The southern United States wasn’t the first or last export region to use forced labor to keep prices competitive, and the emancipation of its slaves didn’t end labor exploitation. At the start of the eighteenth century, in industrial centers like Manchester, England, children were plucked from orphanages and indentured to work in wool and cotton mills. In 1788, as many as two out of every three workers in Great Britain’s cotton mills were children.
More than a hundred years later, conditions had improved only slightly. By the twentieth century, sweatshops featuring dangerous working conditions and wages that kept workers hungry and dependent on their employers were common throughout the industrialized world. The infamous 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City marked a turning point in workers’ rights in the U.S. garment industry. After the high-profile accident at the Greenwich Village factory, in which 146 garment workers, some of them girls as young as fourteen, were burned or jumped to their deaths, the federal and state governments began to enact laws to protect worker safety and require better wages. Following these labor reforms, garment manufacturing moved, for the most part, from New York to the less regulated West Coast. When federal labor regulations passed throughout the twentieth century made production cheaper outside the United States, garment manufacturers moved again, this time to countries like Mexico and China.
Whenever laws or regulations are established to improve safety and stability for garment workers, the garment industry shifts quickly to less regulated, less protected labor pools. China remains the largest exporter of finished apparel to the United States. However, its prominence has been challenged whenever cheaper labor becomes available elsewhere.
In 1994, the United States and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, cutting tariffs and making imports into the United States from neighboring Mexico incredibly inexpensive. Through the 1990s, Tehuacán, Mexico, quickly grew to become the world’s largest denim producer. Between 1991 and 2001, the population of the town and surrounding suburbs more than doubled from a sleepy 150,000 to 360,000 as hundreds of garment- and textile-manufacturing plants, free from import and export taxes, sprung up rapidly. Throughout the decade, wages remained at poverty levels, with many workers earning less than US$50 a week. Aside from providing unsafe working conditions, the factories also caused devastating environmental damage when chemicals used to treat denim, such as acid wash, were leaked into the region’s water supply. By 2001, Mexico had surged ahead of China as the leading apparel exporter to the United States.
As Ana Juárez recounts, efforts to organize workers to improve their conditions have been stifled or violently quashed by factory owners. Some vocal workers have found themselves blacklisted from factories; others have been beaten and imprisoned. Still, despite efforts to hold down worker wages and production costs, Mexico’s prominence in the worldwide garment-manufacturing industry diminished when manufacturers had the opportunity to produce garments even more cheaply in Central America and Asia. By 2011, Mexico had dropped to fifth on the list of garment exporters to the United States while China reclaimed the lead spot. Bangladesh, meanwhile, had surged to the second spot.
In Bangladesh, the landscape for workers’ rights is bleak. The garment industry accounts for nearly 80 percent of Bangladesh’s exports, with US$19.1 billion in exports between 2011 and 2012. At the same time, the country’s wages remain the lowest in the world for garment manufacturers—now nearly US$40 a month, wages were as low as US$23 a month just over a decade ago. With labor costs for China’s garment workers going up by as much as 40 percent in the past three years, Bangladesh became an increasingly attractive supplier for clothing retailers, at least until recently. In April 2013, the Rana Plaza industrial park in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers and injuring 2,500 more. The tragedy alerted the world to the abysmal working conditions in the Bangladeshi garment industry, though reform to workplace safety legislation in the country has been slow.
Workers’ attempts to meaningfully participate in negotiations over workplace conditions in Bangladesh have been met with resistance. Efforts to organize and bargain collectively have been shut down, at times violently, by police, security forces, and hired thugs.
If meaningful change is enacted in Bangladesh, clothing companies may start to look elsewhere for cheaper labor. U.S. apparel companies occasionally audit conditions in countries where they source their goods. Still, the bottom line seems to rule as countries willing to offer the cheapest labor pools and the lowest costs of production continue to find willing customers and billions of dollars in investments from companies in the United States and elsewhere. And for garment workers, the struggle for better pay and better rights will continue to be distorted by their political leaders into a choice between a high-risk, low-wage job and no job at all.
This article is excerpted from the book Invisible Hands: Voices From The Global Economy, an oral history collection by publisher Voice of Witness.
Graphic designed by Michelle Ney.