Last week, a friend posted on Facebook: “I’m not sure I needed the things that I just bought in the January sales, but they sure were cheap.”

Granted, these are not unusual sentiments amongst female folk. In the midst of the cold, post-Christmas slump in London, sometimes the January sales are all there is to keep us going.

…companies have openly taken advantage of advances in transportation, communication and neoliberal economic policies…

But as phrases like “70% off” or “Everything Must Go” set our hearts racing, as we buy clothes we don’t need because they’re so cheap, and as we gloat about our bargains to our friends, the sad irony is that at the same time so many women get so much delight from the cheap clothing industry, the mechanisms used to drive prices down are trapping millions of women elsewhere in poverty.

That clothes are made by women in factories in faraway places is no secret. Since the 1960s, companies have openly taken advantage of advances in transportation, communication and neoliberal economic policies to offshore their manufacturing to countries where labour is cheaper.

…a woman’s role as reproducer and mother is to provide unpaid caring work…

It is not by accident that the global assembly line has a distinctive female bias. Women were specifically targeted as the best workers for the job for a number of reasons including gender stereotypes: that they are naturally more docile and willing to accept strict discipline in the workplace than men, less inclined to join trade unions and kick up a fuss about working conditions, and better physically suited to the delicate and monotonous  factory work, particularly in the clothing industry.

Perceived differentials in male and female income needs – namely that a man needs income to support his family, whereas a woman’s role as reproducer and mother is to provide unpaid caring work (and therefore any income generated is an added bonus for the household) – were used to justify paying women less than employers might otherwise have felt compelled to pay men.

…just a phase all industrialised nations have gone through on the path towards bigger and better things.

It is also no secret that there are two sides to the ‘sweatshop debate’. While civil society and activist groups have long been campaigning against the dire conditions factory workers toil under, highlighting the separation that has occurred between brand and production, others – including even liberal economists and thinkers such as Paul Krugman and Nicholas Kristof – have praised the rise of sweatshops, arguing they have improved many a developing country’s position economically, and are just a phase all industrialised nations have gone through on the path towards bigger and better things.

But what is surprising is that the fact that the large-scale mobilization of women onto the global assembly line has specific consequences for women, and that macroeconomic policies which can benefit a nation’s economy at large can simultaneously disproportionately affect women, appears to have escaped the mainstream.

…the largest garment export factory in Jordan which mass produces clothing for a range of companies including Gap, Hanes and Wal-Mart.

Arguments that sweatshops and bad working conditions are the price to pay for a country’s overall economic development do not appear to take into account factors such that offshoring in the global competitive marketplace involves complex contracting and subcontracting arrangements, which has resulted in new patterns such as the migration of ‘guest workers’ in search of work and better pay in factories in foreign countries.

The reality for these guest workers is often not better pay and opportunities for their families (or their home country’s economic development,) but exploitation and abuse. A recent report published by the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the promotion of worker rights in the global economy, captures the experiences of Sri Lankan workers at Classic Fashion, the largest garment export factory in Jordan which mass produces clothing for a range of companies including Gap, Hanes and Wal-Mart.

…it has done very little to empower women at the local level.

According to the report, an average day at work could involve having you breasts fondled in front of colleagues as a form of public humiliation if you make a mistake or fall behind production goals, or a demotion and a pay cut if you decline the sexual advances of your male manager. If you fall pregnant as a result of being raped, you will be forcibly deported – something particularly troublesome for young rural women from countries where honour is valued so highly.

While one could argue that this case study is particularly shocking, and is due to the particular behaviours of the male managers at that specific workplace, the emergence of migrant female workers is not just impacting on the women in the factories. This is because, when a female head of household migrates abroad, additional burdens are often placed on female family members back home.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis we can also see how, while factory work might have helped economies at a macro level, it has done very little to empower women at the local level. Organisations like Oxfam argue that as the world economy fell into recession, and factories have been shut down to cut costs, women in regions like south east Asia are left with no career prospects, and no alternative but to turn to sex work to generate the income their families have come to rely on.

…a starting point might be a basic understanding amongst western consumers…

Their experiences are local and contingent, there are clear patterns of women being trapped in poverty and inequality as a result of a system that has devalued their labour at the same time as relying on it to prop up a global economy driven by a consumer culture constantly wanting more at lower prices.

I don’t profess to have the solutions to these problems. But a starting point might be a basic understanding amongst western consumers, particularly women, that cheap clothes are a female thing in more ways than one.

 

About The Author

Freelance writer interested in all things globalization, urbanization and human related.

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