August 2003, Vol. 126, No.8
Sweatshop factory warriors
Book reviews from past issues
Sweatshop factory warriors
Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take on the Global Factory. By Miriam Ching Yoon Louie. Cambridge, MA, South End Press, 2001, 256 pp., $40/cloth; $18/paper.
In her work, Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take on the Global Factory, Miriam Ching Yoon Louie addresses the sweatshop industry as it presently exists in the United States, particularly in the garment industry. The true focus and motivation for the book, however, is the activism that has developed in reaction to this growing industry. In her discussions of sweatshops, Louie briefly details the evolution of sweatshops in the early 20th century, but centers on their recent growth and on the increased reliance on subcontractors by large clothing companies that has occurred concurrently with globalization. "The subcontracting system," she explains, "allows manufacturers and retailers to slash the cost of labor and facilities, and—since subcontractors, not manufacturers, are legally responsible for any labor law violations in their shops—leave subcontractors with the burden of ensuring decent working conditions." These smaller subcontractors are, most likely, not under the same degree of legal scrutiny as the larger manufactures, creating an industry in which sweatshops have been able to thrive.
The book alternates between an analytical and a testimonial style, interspersing commentary with first-person narratives drawn from the extensive interviews that preceded the work. Several of the women interviewed were involved in legislative action against manufacturers such as Donna Karan New York (DKNY) and Jessica McClintock for the hazardous sweatshop conditions in which their merchandise is produced. The harrowing working conditions faced by these women are described in the testimonial segments of the work. For example, Bo Yee, an immigrant from Hong Kong describes her experience as being "a prisoner in a sealed cage. All the windows were locked. They wouldn’t let you go to the bathroom. They had ‘No Loud Talking’ signs posted. There were about 20 of us there working ten hours a day, seven days a week." Another worker, "Lisa," reveals that she and her fellow employees at a subcontractor for Sears, Roebuck and Co. would work "over one hundred hours a week, for less than $2 an hour."
In spite of this daunting and often heart-wrenching subject matter, the tone of the book is upbeat, as the author chooses to emphasize the women’s activism in combating the sweatshop industry pyramid. For example, Bo Yee, one of the workers quoted above, is an organizer for the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA). Yee, like many of her fellow organizers chronicled within the work, first went to AIWA with her own personal employment difficulties, and only later became involved as an organizer and leader. In this way, Louie changes the traditional depiction of sweatshop workers as victims, creating a more nuanced vision in which voice and agency are granted to a group traditionally viewed as lacking these characteristics. She makes this point explicit in her introduction when she states, "they are neither victims nor superwomen. These sweatshop warriors are simply everyday women in our communities who have much to tell and teach."
The work is easily accessible—even to those with little former knowledge of the sweatshop industry (such as this reviewer)—a result of combining first-person testimonials and an analysis that avoids being pedantic or overbearing. In her style, the author reflects the movement and organizations about which she is writing, mimicking their grass-roots, casual, open, and innovative qualities.
Louie focuses this study on the particular experiences of Chinese, Koreans, and Mexicana women in the United States. The work begins with a chapter devoted to each of these three cultural groups exploring the different challenges faced by each. Incidentally, these differences include geography—for example, her studies of Chinese workers in the garment industry in New York’s Chinatown and Mexicana workers in Texas. As a result of this geographic diversity, the work encompasses the majority of the country. These first chapters function to ground the later analysis in the first-person testimonials of workers involved in the anti-sweatshop movement. They also serve as an introduction to some of the local and grass-roots organizations that are later described in more detail. Additionally, these organizations are often intimately connected to the community they serve, furthering the characterization of the movement as intrinsically grassroots.
Although many of the women interviewed in the work are natives of their respective countries, Louie also interviewed many who were U.S.-born or are of the "1.5 generation" (those who came to the United States in early childhood). The diverse challenges faced by differing generations are also discussed; for example, she examines the way in which 1.5- and second-generation Americans are often "thrust into the role of translators and intermediaries between U.S. institutions and their elders." Louie addresses the consequences of these generational experiences and highlights the ways in which they manifest themselves in the focus and work of the organizations and sweatshop movement as a whole. She describes this manifestation as an organic, grassroots movement changing and shifting in order to best serve the workers. The book, in this way, is as much a touching biography of a movement as it is a depiction of the individuals involved in it.
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