Exploiting My Sister to Dress on a Dime: Social Class Intersections within the Clothing Industry

It seems that high-end spending among America’s affluent class has gone underground in response to the current economic recession.  In particular, some wealthy women shoppers are asking cashiers at high-end stores to put their purchases in plain white paper bags so that store and clothing labels are hidden.  Other wealthy women want their expensive clothes shipped home so they can walk out of posh stores without any bags at all.  Still willing to drop $10,000 on a shopping spree, the women say covert spending is “the right thing to do” during a recession. Now isn’t this socially responsible spending and consumption?  Or is it?

Sarcasm aside, it’s too bad these women are thinking only of their own image, not the exploitation of those who make America’s clothes.  Consumer polls suggest that few Americans consciously seek to oppress women in low-wage jobs within the clothing industry.  And many Americans report they would pay more for clothing to ensure that garment workers are treated fairly and outside of sweatshop working conditions. On the other hand, there is the Harvard University study that found that concern over sweatshop labor flies out of the window if people desire a product strongly. (See “Sweatshop Labor is Wrong Unless the Jeans are Cute:  Motivated Moral Disengagement.”)  Thus, what people say versus what they do may differ.

Some people may not know or fully understand the ramifications of their purchasing decisions. This includes upper-middle class shoppers who flock to designer outlets stores, such as Saks Off Fifth, Nordstrom Rack, and Neiman’s Last Call. So, here are some things for us to consider the next time we head out the door in search of another great steal and perfect outfit:

§  Many of the 2 out of 5 women who work in low-wage jobs are employed as sales persons and cashiers in retail clothing stores. Earning $8.00 less per hour than the average worker in private industry earns, these women often live at or below poverty level, work inflexible or unpredictable work schedules, lack health insurance and retirement pensions, and have little opportunity for career advancement.

§  The cost to the consumer for low- wage employment in the retail industry is reportedly higher taxes for food stamps, Medicaid, and other poverty relief programs. Therefore, over the long run, we all “pay” the cost of low- wage employment in the retail clothing industry, and it would seem that few people realize true savings from purchasing clothes at bargain basement prices.  We might also consider how failing to demand better wages and working conditions for low-wage workers contributes to their exploitation. And because the “cost” of low-wage employment is passed to the consumer, we exploit ourselves when we exploit our “sisters.”

§  As many as 50% of all U.S. garment factories are reported to be “sweatshops” that violate labor laws and workers’ human rights. For example, in what has been described as “one of the worst sweatshops that [New York] state inspectors have visited in years,” workers routinely worked a 66 hour, six-day work week at $3.79 an hour, far below the states’ minimum hourly wage.” The factory, which produces clothing for Macy’s, Gap, Banana Republic, and Victoria’s Secret, did not pay for overtime and reportedly fired a worker for taking off one Sunday to see a doctor. This report mirrors documented reports of long work hours, mandatory (unpaid) overtime, starvation wages, constant pressure to meet high production orders, restricted bathroom breaks, verbal and physical abuse, and unsafe and unhealthy working conditions (e.g., poor ventilation and broken toilets) at other garment factories. Not surprisingly, given their sizeable immigrant populations, New York and California are notorious for sweatshop abuse.

§  About 90% of all sweatshop workers are women. Most of the women are young Hispanic and Asian immigrant women, who often do not speak English, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation. These are the women behind the labels of the clothes that we wear.  Their exploited labor allows us to “dress on a dime.”

At what point will we consider the moral dimension of our spending and consumption? And when will we address the systemic problems that lead to sweatshops and low-wage employment in the retail clothing industry? For example, the lack of a livable wage, the reduction in middle-class jobs, the unchallenged, unregulated consolidation of power among a few retailers in the global economy (oligopoly), gender subordination, and social class subordination/social class privilege. When?

Denise A. Narcisse

This entry was posted in Class at the Intersections, The Working Class and the Economy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Exploiting My Sister to Dress on a Dime: Social Class Intersections within the Clothing Industry

  1. A Sarcastic Yet Sympathetic Jerk says:

    Now I wonder how long it will take for someone to blame immigration policy for sweatshop labour on American soil?

    I.E. “If we stop letting them in the country, they’ll stop making these shops and taking profits away from honest workers.” -Some idiot on the bus. (Ethnic slurs removed)

    The North American perception of how Capitalism works is a major barrier to the security of worker’s rights. There is the firm belief that earnings and effort are directly linked but the reality is that paying proper wages cuts into the profit margin and it’s easier to threaten to cut wages if people don’t work harder than it is to raise them when they go the extra mile. Attempting to ensure a certain level of pay for labour supposedly breeds only complacency while grossly overpaying executive positions supposedly breeds excellence. Attempting to even this crap out is seen as taking money from the people who ‘earned’ it such as the owners of delightful sweatshops.

    Also of note is the ‘not my problem’ attitude when most people find out they’re dealing with someone that practices less than legal business preferring to absolve themselves of any guilt or complicity simply because they’re not the ones in the room holding the cat o’ nine tails. Such events are cut off from the chain of industry and considered isolated from everything it touches.

    Of course, pointing any of this out makes you some kind of filthy godless communist or a welfare vampire or some other equally loathesome and ridiculous thing.

    I think the gender equality argument is a near-coincidental factor to this issue. Women from Hispanic and Asian countries are easier for such places to take advantage of because: A) Most of those countries still promote or even enforce a woman’s role as a homemaker, which provides them with the skills neccessary to make clothes whereas most men don’t know how to sew. And B) Places like that govern through fear. It’s always easier to bully someone that isn’t likely to punch you in the face and flush your head down the toilet. Their tendancy for recruitment doesn’t stem from their gender so much as the fact they are likely smaller and weaker than the overseers and have a non-threatening demeanor.

    Furthermore I imagine the 10% male employee ratio fares no better in the ‘getting treated like a prison b*tch’ department.


  2. gangbox says:

    First of all, what (if anything) is UNITE HERE doing to organize these sweatshops?

    Second, let us not forget the years of corruption and collusion with sweatshop owners and gangsters by the leaders of the ILGWU New York Joint Board and the ACTWU New York/New Jersey Joint Board that let sweatshops flourish in the first place.

    And third – paying higher prices for clothes will NOT eliminate sweatshop wages! That’s pure supply side Reaganomics!


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