Book Review: Making Sweatshops

In Making Sweatshops, Ellen Israel Rosen thoroughly details the history and policies of the United States textile industry and it’s impact on the global economy. Examining the neo-liberal argument that global apparel trade will lead to economic development in poor countries, Rosen offers valuable insight and research to thoroughly demonstrate the reality of the current market state. She contends that current trends observed in global textile trade support that wealth produced by industrial development in poor countries is not “trickling down the economic ladder” (Rosen 5).

The United States has not always been open to free trade ideologies. The United States traditionally was a very protectionist economy. As a result, that developed beggar thy neighbor policies that lead to economic isolation (Rosen 14). These economic policies ultimately lead to the World War II, and moreover lead to the realization of their ineffectiveness. Consequently, GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) was born out of the Brent Woods Commission held after WWII. The goal of the commission was to prevent another war of a global scale, and protecting the international economy was a critical component of that formula. The ambitious participants of the commission wished to set up a system for international trade, but had great difficulty in agreeing on what would constitute that system. Accordingly, GATT was implemented (lasting from 1947-1994) as a way to conduct bilateral agreements among nations to set the terms of international trade. GATT exemplified the American and British philosophical assumptions about economic rationality, and furthermore, set the stage in the latter half of the century for economic activity and trade liberalization (Rosen 14).

Global free trade must be conceptualized as more than market driven forces; it plays a crucial role in maintaining political power of industrialized nations. Rosen puts forth a new theoretical framework called the neo-liberal economic paradigm to understand the prominence of trade liberalization dominating policy making in the economic and government arenas. Therefore, as global trade becomes more liberalized, the aspects of production are also transformed. For example, half the jobs in apparel production being transferred from industrialized nations to less developed nations. Proponents of the neo-liberal perspective hold that global trade in apparel will not only lead to economic growth, it will also in the long run “produce the economic development necessary to alleviate the existing social disorganization and expanding inequalities” within poor nations (Rosen 5).

A key issue with the neo-liberal economic paradigm is the increasing role that transnational corporations are playing in the international economy. The corporations have changed the “market structures and rules that formerly governed trade” (Rosen 19). Therefore, the political economy designed by these corporations is shaped to support global expansion, often at the cost of the laborer and nation state, taking away any power the government could of had over their own economies. The textile industry exemplifies this as thousands of manufacturing jobs in third world countries are in garment production (in addition to other manufacturing) where women are primarily employed. Why women? Traditionally women’s work has been devalued by men in the context of the labor environment, since men have controlled the power within the economic realm. Furthermore, a woman’s wage is calculated in relation to how society views a woman’s role as the relational mother, especially with in developing countries with strong family traditions. Consequently, examining economic production through a feminist perspective affords one a greater insight into the disparities among men and women in manufacturing, specifically the textile industry, which is dominated by women. But, back to the point, corporations have reshaped the demographic of the labor force within a specific industry to meet the needs of their “economic” efficiency, illustrating the power they have over economies. Sex segregated work allows corporations a greater ability to devalue a woman’s work. Moreover, the rise of labor abuses and sweat shops further indicate how corporations, if unregulated, can act in manners not regarding human rights within the workplace.

Industrial powers have the ability to manipulate markets through tariff policies and trade quotas and various other trade polices. Poor nations are subjects of trade agreements and transnational corporate power, placing unindustrialized economies in strenuous positions. Public policy and governing policy must be integrated to meet the needs of both corporations and the labor force within both industrial and non-industrial countries. Employing a more equal labor force in disproportionately populated in industries, such as textiles, ensures that a living wage would more likely occur among workers. This is just one step of the various form of policy restructuring needed to ensure human rights among workers in the era of free trade liberalization. As corporate expansion pushes forward with out bounds, human rights may become at risk. The lack of corporate economic reinvestment and wealth creation among workers of developing countries epitomizes a critical flaw of the neo-liberal economic paradigm

– Ellen Israel Rosen. 2002. Making Sweatshops:The Globalization of the U.S. Apparel Industry

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