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(en) Ireland, Anarchist journal, Red and Black Revolution #14 - Book Review: “Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take On The Global Factory by Gregor Kerr

Date Wed, 17 Sep 2008 07:33:46 +0300

Sweatshop Warriors:Immigrant Women Workers Take On The Global Factory by Miriam
Ching Yoon Louie. Published by South End Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The book seamlessly alternates between the direct testimony of the ‘Sweatshop
Warriors’ themselves and analysis of the growth and spread of globalised
capitalism. This book was published in 2001 but 7 years later its strength still
lies in its simplicity. ---- It gives voice to “immigrant women workers who are
barred from rooms where deals get cut…who get punished for telling the truth;
who are asked to speak only as victims…” And by giving a platform to these too
often unheard voices, the book demonstrates that self-organisation is the key to
successfully fighting back against the exploitation and abuse faced by those at
the bottom of the economic ladder.

“Luckily for us…”, writes the author – who herself has spent over thirty years
working in various solidarity organisations thus gaining a unique insight and
access to the people she writes about – “…these workers are chiselling through
thick walls of censorship to make themselves heard.

They are organizing themselves in workers’ centres, creating their own groups
when the labour or community organizations that already exist fail to meet their
needs. Contrary to conventional wisdom that leans heavily on white and/or male
academics, these women are the real experts about the inner workings of the
global economy, labour markets, and immigrant communities – speaking to us from
the bottom of the sweatshop industry pyramid.”

Even for those already familiar with the nature of capitalism, and aware of the
even deeper exploitations attached to globalization and the growth of
sub-contracting, this book’s stark and vivid description of the “pyramid of
labour exploitation and profit generation” is useful.

The manner in which huge US retailers such as Wal-Mart, K-Mart, etc. and
designers such as DKNY are able to wash their hands of any responsibility for
labour conditions and wages in the factories in which the goods they sell are
made, the way in which they can pit sub-contractor against sub-contractor thus
driving wages down even further, the way in which the sub-contractors themselves
can pit more established workers against newcomers and ‘documented’ workers
against ‘undocumented’ – all of it contributes to painting a picture of
exploitation as stark as it is possible to imagine.

Two statistics quoted in the book’s introduction sum it up: “Garment workers in
Los Angeles…each produce about $100,000 worth of goods in a year, but are paid
less than 2 percent of the total value. For a dress that retails for $100, $1.72
goes to the sewer, $15 to the contractor, and $50 goes to the manufacturer.” “In
1960, CEOs made 41 times their average employee’s wage; in 1990, 85 times; but
in 1999, the gap sky-rocketed to 475 times.”

With its descriptions of the horrific labour conditions endured by its subjects,
this book could easily have become depressing and downbeat. But far from it. The
women interviewed and featured in the book are living testament to the human
spirit and their stories of fighting back against the exploitation they are
forced to live under are a source of encouragement to all who would fight for a
fair and just world.

Chinese immigrant women garment and restaurant workers in New York, Mexican
immigrant seamstresses in El Paso, San Antonio and Los Angeles, Korean immigrant
women restaurant workers in Los Angeles’ Korea-town all speak to us directly of
the experiences that shaped their need to get active and fight back. The
experiences of campaigns organised by these women such as the Garment Workers
Justice Campaign of Asian Immigrant Women Advocates,

La Mujer Obrera and the Korean immigrant Workers Advocates’ Workers Organising
Project have plenty of lessons for all involved in the fight against global

The strongest message that this book gives is that that battle against global
capitalism is almost always a series of local battles. “When these immigrant
women workers were confronted with the big picture of sweatshop exploitation, to
paraphrase labour agitator Mother Jones, they didn’t just get mad – they got
organised.” In the Ireland of 2008, sweatshop conditions such as those described
in this book don’t exist.

But with the increase in immigration to Ireland in the last number of years,
there is no doubt that wage rates have been driven down and exploitation and
abuse of workers’ rights has increased exponentially. Small skirmishes against
that exploitation have taken place – the most high profile being that of the
GAMA workers in 2005 (see http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=463 for

Many more of these battles face us, and the stories of the immigrant workers
detailed in this book give heart and guidance as to how these battles might be
won. Because the subjects of this book are women, they found themselves
contending not alone with the exploitation of their bosses but also with the
demands of the patriarchal society in which they live.

Some of the women interviewed migrated to the USA before their families and
worked to make the money to bring their families after them. In other cases,
they followed their families. All of them have unique stories to tell but all of
them have faced common hurdles. As well as providing an income for their
families they have had to deal with the challenges of childcare, cooking,
cleaning etc.

Yet they have overcome all of these challenges to establish their own
organizations most of which are run by women and all of which have a majority of
women members. The challenges they have faced and the issues they have had to
deal with have not alone been issues of exploitation in the workplace but have
often involved challenging some of the sexual stereotypes which they have come
across in their communities. There is no blueprint for how exploited workers
might organize themselves to fight back. To some extent every battle is unique.

But there are also plenty of lessons to be learnt from those battles which are
fought, especially those which are successful. All workers in Ireland took heart
from the tremendous fighting spirit showed by the GAMA workers. The lessons
learned in that battle will be used by other groups of workers in future struggles.

Belatedly, trade unions here are at last starting to wake up to the need to get
serious about the organisation of immigrant workers. But what this book shows is
that it is the self-organised community and labour groups which will take the
battle to the bosses – and that often the official trade union leadership can
get in the way just as much as be of assistance. This book is a refreshing and
informative read, and should serve as an inspiration to all of us to trust the
human spirit and to believe in the dignity of the fight-back. It is also a call
to arms – a challenge to take up that fight wherever each of us might be. The
author sums it up, “Listening to the women speak cannot be an act of
consumerism. Seeing them fight for their rights cannot be an act of voyeurism.
Listening to the women means returning to the source, to the heart of what
today’s struggles for justice and dignity are all about.

Just as the women have stepped forward, pushed themselves harder, and struggled
to take on new challenges with ohso- scarce resources, so each of us is called
upon to do the same, wherever we may work and live, with whomever we consider
our sisters and brothers, co-workers and community. We must ask ourselves
individually and collectively what we are doing to challenge the pyramids of
oppression we face. Turning down the volume of the elite’s chatter, we must
train our ears to listen harder to hear the vibrant voices and lyrical
leadership of grassroots folk on the bottom, the foundation rock of mass movements…”

From Red and Black Revolution 14
March 2008
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