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Low Pay, High Profile: The Global Push for…

Low Pay, High Profile: The Global Push for Fair Labor

by Andrew Ross

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Longshore workers have been at the fulcrum of global labor for as long as there has been world trade. When the ILWU negotiated the first Mechanization & Modernization agreement back in the late 1950s, no one imagined that container technology would underpin such a radical expansion of globalization, nor that the process of globalization would look an awful lot like the early stages of industrialization dating back to the early 1800s. And yet, entering the second half of the 21st century’s first decade, workers across the planet are confronted by a savage capitalism unleashed since the mid-1970s at least.

Andrew Ross’s book “Low Pay High Profile: The Global Push for Fair Labor” is an extremely engaging and wide-ranging book. Don’t let the horrible title discourage you. Capitalist ideologues have long used “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” as a bludgeon against workers seeking deeper changes in the set-up of society, so it’s dismaying to see it echoed in this book’s title. In fact, Ross helps us peer into the containers crisscrossing the oceans, not just to see the stuff in them, but also to learn about the people who are producing those commodities in far-off lands and the people who are schlepping and selling them closer to home—and to reveal a great deal about the conditions under which they are working.

If the book was merely an exposé of deplorable working conditions, it would fail to capture the dynamism of this historical moment. Ross begins this book with a detailed look at the “second anti-sweatshop movement” that is confronting the barbaric practices of the fashion industry all over the planet, in factories, malls and the media at home and at factory gates in Indonesia, Vietnam, and even China. Anti-globalization protests get occasional headlines but the everyday organizing of some of its participants is not so well known. United Students Against Sweatshops, Corpwatch, and of course UNITE HERE (AFL-CIO) are all working together and separately to combat the egregious re-emergence of brutal sweatshops, not just in Mexico and China, but in Los Angeles, New York and other U.S. and European cities too.

Andrew Ross is a capable analyst and he does not merely skim the story, highlighting bad corporate practices and well-meaning campaigns to combat them. He sees the anti-sweatshop movement as but one example of a larger historical dynamic underway at this time. The context of this battle in textiles is a decades-long process of market transformation and expansion. His second chapter goes to the small factories of Italy, where the famous brands such as Armani and Gucci arose in the late 1970s and early 1980s and ushered in a whole new market for “Made in Italy” ready-to-wear fashion, as well as design and furniture. This is the birthplace of a key transformation in modern capitalism, covered well in Naomi Klein’s “No Logo”—the rise of commodities dependent on an image of having high aesthetic or creative content. It turns out that this Italian success story too is built on outsourcing, homework and sweatshop labor, not just the mythical flexibility of small producers scattered around northern Italy. Now that China has become the global leader in cheap, quality textiles and clothing, even the famous Italian brands are turning to Chinese manufacturers to keep their much-promoted labels in business.

In fact, under the rules of China’s entrance to the WTO, barriers to Chinese textiles and ready-to-wear clothing are falling and predictably, containers stuffed with cheap Chinese imports are pouring into harbors in the U.S. and Europe, producing unprecedented trade deficits and pushing surviving local manufacturers into ever more drastic efforts to lower labor costs. Politicians are already starting the China-bashing and calling for protectionist tariffs and quotas, even though the global system they’ve helped usher in is the culprit, not any particular government or underpaid workers across the seas.

It’s probably easy to think of textiles and clothing as “other people’s” issues, but Ross has a really illuminating chapter called “Friedrich Engels Visits the Old Trafford Megastore”. In it he describes how sports and fashion have converged over the past decade (how many readers are wearing a sports jersey or cap right now?) to expand the marketing logic of branding in ways we could never imagine as kids in the latter part of the 20th century. The global marketing of such brands as “New York Yankees” or “Chicago Bulls” or “Manchester United” (which often accompanies the purchase of such franchises by global media giants like Murdoch’s News Corp.) follows closely behind the corporate purchase of star athletes as spokespeople (think Michael Jordan or David Beckham), all of which serves to inflate the price of such branded goods while obscuring the enormous profits derived from the exploitation of cheap, mostly female, labor across the planet.

There’s more though. The specific role of Britain and south Asia in this curious global relationship merits a closer look. Not only did the original colonization of India set the stage for Britain’s emergence as an empire, it also gave Britain control over a new global textile industry that had previously been very strong in the Bengal region of India. When Engels described the horrifying conditions in Manchester’s textiles mills in the mid-19th century, he could have never dreamed of what the beginning of the 21st century would bring.

“Manchester [England] and Dhaka [Bangladesh] had changed their roles. One can only imagine what Engels would have made of a visit to the Old Trafford megastore. In that most peculiar of emporiums, fans of a soccer club with origins as a factory-worker team pay exorbitant prices for cheaply produced goods that are sewn and glued in Asia by the same class of women and children who toiled in the original “workshop of the world.” Many of the goods are tagged with “Made in Bangladesh” and “Made in China,” the same countries that were once forced to import machine-made cottons and yarns from Manchester, after the decimation of the Bengali textile industry, and after the gunboat diplomacy that opened China’s treaty ports to British concessions in 1842. Economic history can boast few examples with a more profound or ruinous irony.” [p. 109]

Ross’s book goes on to a much broader look at global production, with chapters on China, silicon wafers, and mental labor. A later chapter brings the story back to the heart of empire with a look at the 1996, largely gay-inspired, UNITE union campaign at Barney’s in Manhattan. It links the creative struggle of retail clerks who help establish and sell high-end fashions to that of the anti-sweatshop crusaders who have also developed innovative ways to re-frame corporate practices to make gains for workers.

“Low Pay High Profile” is a well-documented and revealing examination of the restructuring of work and markets across the planet. ( )
  ccarlsson | Oct 31, 2007 |
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