Book Review: Making Sweatshops: The Globalization of the U.S. Apparel Industry, by Ellen Israel Rosen

One of the most frustrating aspects of understanding sweatshops is how they came to exist in globalization. Abusive conditions are found in many industries in hundreds of countries around the world, but the sweatshop is notoriously identified in apparel and textiles. This brought scholar Ellen Israel Rosen to what may be the most accessible, but also thorough book on a modern history of sweatshops. Making Sweatshops (University of California Press, 2002) puts the last century in perspective by drawing from trade, military and industrial history to put hard economic facts into the underbelly of globalization.

The Losers of Globalization
In the miraculous spread of consumerism that brings plentitude to the masses in globalization, Rosen reveals it is not a zero-sum game. It may seem that while some may reap more than others, everyone gains in the end from the free trade that liberalizes globalization. One of the biggest claims of the advent of free trade in globalization is that consumers get affordable goods. In the case of apparel, Rosen points out that in the claim of “the free trade regime’s ability to offer clothing at lower cost, evidence suggests that the benefit consumers derive from this is minimal.” (Rosen, 221)

The other claim that has long been used for developing economies in globalization, rationalizes sweatshops as a stepping-stone. Rosen brings a great deal of attention to the Asian-Pacific rise of industry, especially since it branches from the industrial-military development of those regions after World War II. With young women, girls, even children employed in sweatshops, western economists often brushed aside criticism. They claimed, and still do that these workers were “treated in accordance with the economic standards, culture and traditions of their time and place.” (Rosen, 53-53) She goes on to show how this mentality still exists today, especially in the increasing use of export processing zones. With reports of abuse, sexual harassment, bonded servitude, where, one may ask do these economists get this brand of moral relativism.

What is glaringly apparent in Making Sweatshops is that women fall victim to gaps in the systems of globalization and trade. Rosen creates a feminist argument that goes beyond basic gender rights and into the predicament of policy. One gets the sense that Rosen’s position establishes women as victims of circumstance in the gaps of globalization. Something refreshingly wise from literature that attacks gender issues as premeditated hatred of women. While misogyny is at the basis of the entirety of the feminist movement, Rosen avoids cornering the issue there and pushing a broader perspective of trade policy. With that remains a sad truth that can speak for itself; women are the primary victims of sweatshops in mechanistic trade expansion.

Psychology of Job Loss
Furthermore than the abuses consistent in sweatshops, whether in South Asia, The Caribbean or Central America, is the resulting job loss. This comes at many levels and Rosen does not overlook that it is internationally and domestically. Foreign workers lose jobs in capital flight throughout export processing zones and free trade zones. Domestic manufacturing jobs are lost also when production is outsourced, something that has been threatening domestic industry since the early 1950s. Rosen reveals the psychological impact of what she calls, the downwardly mobile, countering the common notion that in industrialization jobs grow with development. This is not entirely true for domestic laborers or the outsourced manufacturing jobs. The impact of this on countries’ sociological infrastructure is draining, but left unattended in the debate of globalization’s affect at home. Unfortunately Rosen leaves this, as well as most of the book short on solutions. That may not have been her intention, as it is purely a historical step in understanding the perpetuation of sweatshops in globalization.

U.S Trade Policy Agenda
Saving the best for last, this review can’t go without mention of Rosen’s archival evidence pulled from congressional hearings on trade. She brings great clarity to how military development projects were directed to industrialize Asia after World War II. While the effects on Asia, particularly Japan, Taiwan and South Korea may have initiated industrialization; it proves that political agendas manipulate trade efforts. Many political battles were waged in congress throughout the 20th century over the textiles and apparel industry. A chain of economic connections to war and trade is not far buried in displaying the battles fought on the ground and in the senate for U.S. expansionism. There are several historical epiphanies in Making Sweatshops for those who have heard the activism with the background. Rosen balances her dedication of the book between the struggles of workers and the manipulation of trade policy. What results is a heavily evidenced account of the connections therein and how it has led us to the current state of Globalization. Rosen spares no relevant truth, even if it is verbatim from congressional hearings, offering a position with complexity outside the usual outcries over globalization.

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