By Dalia Gebrial
Sweatshops have, from their inception, been inextricably tied to histories of migration. Indeed, the birth of the sweatshop – characterised not just by low pay and poor labour conditions, but of a specific kind of factory-based, outsourced exploitation – occurred through and alongside the increased supply of immigrant labour in 19th century New York, particularly of Jewish women migrants from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.
Fast forward to the late 1990s, when US media coverage of sweatshops was at an all-time high, it became clear that whilst the sweatshop had globalised over the century, the sweatshop model itself saw little change. A 1995 raid on a makeshift garment factory in El Monte, California found more than 70 undocumented, mostly women Thai workers hunched over unsophisticated machines, severely overworked and underpaid, labouring in cramped, unsafe conditions. Whereas most industries have seen some technological advancement, the image of the garment sweatshop has seen little modification since its inception over a century ago.
So why has migrant labour remained so consistently integral to the sweatshop model? Dr Ashok Kumar, whose work specialises in global production networks and industrial relations, argues that particular industries, such as garments, footwear and certain kinds of toy and furniture require an insecure workforce. ‘Sweatshops are conducive to the status of migrants because they have always been precarious – if you are a migrant you can be exploited more easily, as you have either no workplace rights or are terrified to assert them.’
In other words, it is impossible to talk about sweatshops without talking about the social and legal positioning of its workforce. As Kumar identifies, industries such as garments and footwear that are labour intensive, have a low barrier of entry in terms of capital or technological investment and have rapid, seasonal turnaround are often occupied by undocumented women. Workers in ‘capital-intensive manufacturing’ such as aeronautics and automobile industries, ‘have greater bargaining power because of the levels of investment in fixed capital and technology,’ and tend to be documented and male. We also see a more male and second-generation migrant workforce in the labour-intensive electronics industry, which exhibits sweatshop conditions but has more capital investment than garment industries and therefore sees – albeit it very slightly – more collective bargaining power. Here, social hierarchies are trafficked into and compounded by the workplace, and show themselves to be ardently tied to the kinds of labour carried out.
In her seminal book on gender, labour and power in the global apparel industry, Jane Collins makes a fine case for how this connection between social hierarchies, in which gender and migration status is central, and sweatshop labour is a transnational phenomenon; it ‘linked the fate of workers in industrialised and developing countries’. Referencing the US anti-sweatshop movement of the 1990s, she argues: ‘contradicting the industrialised world’s belief that its economies were different, a proliferation of sweatshops in developing nations appeared to coincide with the increased number and declining conditions of such factories in the United States and Europe as well.’
So what does this tell us about the global workers’ movement? Firstly, it admonishes myths that divide the interest of migrant and non-migrant workers; that it is the mere existence of the former that undercuts the living of the latter. It becomes clear that the structure of certain industries requires a section of the workforce to be situated at the bottom and most precarious level of the social hierarchy, as they have less access to collective bargaining and solidarity – a position that can be instrumentalised in the workplace.
Undocumented migrants are less valued in society, and can therefore be paid less and exploited more, slotting them neatly in to the most precarious industries.
‘It’s what economists call a monopsony,’ says Kumar. ‘In the garment industry, the low barrier of entry – how cheap it is to set up a garment sweatshop – means you see many sellers and few buyers, and suppliers remain competitive by using and disciplining the cheapest, most marginalised workers; those that do so are rewarded with the largest contracts, and those that don’t are left to fail.’ Here, the fault clearly does not lie with migrant workers seeking a living, but with a structurally embedded and profit-driven need to create a worker base with different degrees of exploitability. Full recognition and defence of migrant worker rights, through the support of collective bargaining, is the only way to sustainably address workers’ rights violations across the board.
Secondly, it invites us to consider another dimension to the escalating refugee crisis. A recent panorama investigation revealed that sweatshop garment factories in Turkey had been using Syrian child refugees and paying them little more than one US dollar an hour, a rate significantly below the minimum wage for documented Turkish workers. Many of these factories were in the supply chain for major global retail brands including ASOS, Mango and Zara.
As Daniel Voskoboynik wrote in his recent New Internationalist article on ‘The legal limbo of climate refugees,’ we are living in an age ‘when more people than ever are being uprooted’ – with 65.3 million, the highest number since records began, people having been forcibly displaced in 2015.
Climate change is rapidly augmenting displacement, and will increasingly become a key driver of migration both across and within national borders.
Indeed, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has predicted that climate change will soon become the biggest global driver of forced migration. The reasons for this are diverse; in some cases, it may be due to livelihoods being destroyed by environmental chaos, in other cases moving and diversifying income becomes a coping strategy for increasing insecurity. Whatever the reason may be, up to one billion people will become environmental migrants by 2050. This phenomenon – which will only become more endemic – must be responded to by workers’ rights organizations.
As a recent 2015 report from Just Jobs Network made clear, as climate change increases rural-to-city migration, urban labour markets will become saturated and climate migrants, like other migrant workers, will be more likely to end up in unstable and unsafe work; such conditions of mass displacement drive the ‘rise of precarious work arrangements and informality, and generates opportunities for exploitation.’ As is typically the case, the poor, and particularly poor women, will largely bear the brunt of this. However, on a macro level, a saturated labour market will place downward pressure on wages and working conditions; all workers ultimately have a stake in full protection of migrant worker rights.
This is why the growth of worker-led bargaining is necessary and reason for optimism. ‘We’re seeing changes in the global value chain’ says Kumar, ‘and this is due to a combination of structure and worker agency – more advanced sections, such as commodity production, denim and shoes, are beginning to be consolidated, extending surplus value at the point of production and reinforcing the relationship between brands and retailers, and potentially increasing the bargaining power of workers.’
It’s beyond time the workers’ rights and climate justice movements work together to respond to these new challenges. The evidence is clear that each have a stake in mitigating climate crisis, and fighting for the rights of those who will be most affected by it.