Invisible threads: skill and the discursive marginalization of the garment industry's workforce
The threat to move manufacturing offshore is perhaps more potent in the garment industry than in any other. The 1992 campaigners for NAFTA put the garment industry in the list of likely losers; amidst the winners of expanded free trade, the public was constantly reminded, were consumers. Workers in the industry are thus subjected to extremes in the insecurity that is reported to plague more and more workers. This insecurity serves the economy well, according to the reactions on Wall Street and the Federal Reserve, by reducing the likelihood of inflation and undermining any attempt to organize workers.In the hegemonic neoliberal discourse of free trade, the jobs of sewing machinists are discursively reduced to the unskilled jobs that developing nations (the Third World) are comparatively advantaged to perform as they join the global economy. The outcomes of this marginalization (in the domestic economy) for sewing are complex. First, it rationalizes the low wages paid not only to machinists in the U.S. but also to people sewing in offshore export processing zones. A closer look at the garment industry in this case study of the Seattle manufacturers of outdoor wear reveals that machinists are not only more skilled than this picture suggests, but also that the current trends in garment manufacturing makes those skills even more essential as retailers demand greater flexibility in inventory management. In other words, the information technology that is transforming the industry depends, but rarely acknowledges its dependence, on a skilled workforce. By reifying sewing as low wage women's work (reproducing the gender relations of production) appropriately performed in the Third World and by immigrants in the First, machinists are cast as the Other, people whose interests are not the same as "ours".I argue that the geography of garment manufacturing can only be understood by looking at the industry as the on-going ever-changing outcome of interwoven processes that are social, cultural, political and economic. For instance, the media paid an enormous amount of attention to the revelation of the "slave-like" conditions of Thai immigrant women working in El Monte, California. These stories are an example of how discourse about the garment industry reproduces the social and cultural relations of the industry, within the larger industrial structure, and within communities.
- Geography