Sunday, March 12, 2017

Alessandra Mezzadri’s "Sweatshop Regime"

Alessandra Mezzadri is Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at SOAS, University of London. Her areas of specialism are material approaches to commodity chains and production systems, global sweatshops and labour standards, gender, feminisms and social reproduction, and the political economy of contemporary India.

Mezzadri applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Sweatshop Regime: Labouring Bodies, Exploitation and Garments Made in India, her first book, and reported the following:
From page 99 (Chapter 3, ‘Difference & the Sweatshop’):
The ‘Sumangali girls’ are recruited and placed at work under the promise of the payment of a lump-sum at the end of a 3-year employment period. During this employment period, girls may only be provided with subsistence expenses or given extremely low monthly salaries; harsh conditions which are endured in order to access the final payment. In many cases, families allow their daughters to be part of the scheme to be able to pay for their marriage-related expenses in the future (Vérité, 2010). While the report specifically targets ‘domestic’ units in Tiruppur, the strong local interrelation between domestic and export production raises some doubts on the possible deployment of the scheme also in export units. Besides, the Tiruppur knitwear industry is not new to problems of bonded labour. In 2008, the Panorama documentary Primark on the Rack unveiled even the deployment by the local garment industry of Sri Lankan children from refugee camps as home-based workers(…).

Arguably, the difficulties in the eradication of the Sumangali lie in the interplays between forms of oppression shaped by the social institution of gender and highly discriminatory and exploitative patterns of work. Indeed, in this case ‘difference’, manifesting in harsh forms of inequality, pre-exists the entry of Sumangali girls into the sweatshops. In fact, it sets the basis for the differential, highly discriminatory processes of commodification of their labour. At the same time, it allows for the maximization of exploitation inside the sweatshops.
The Sweatshop Regime is a book about exploitation, and it explains how we wear it every day on our clothes. Focusing on India, the book explains what characterises the global production system producing our garments, and who are the people toiling incessantly so that we can continue shopping at our favourite high street retailers. This global production system is presented as a joint enterprise against the labouring poor, where multiple actors – global buyers and retailers, domestic exporters and producers, but also many local intermediaries and ultimately consumers – engage in practices reproducing working poverty.

The excerpts above from page 99 of the book summarise quite well one of its key aims - that of discussing the complexities with which ‘difference’ is strategically utilised by garment exporters to (re)produce multiple inequalities on the factory shopfloor, in workshops, or even in homes; i.e. in all spaces of production needed to create our garments. Such inequalities are crucial to cut costs. So, the bodies of workers, on which they obviously ‘wear’ their gender, age, geographical provenance, or caste/community affiliation, are reduced to a strategic asset for producers to exploit for the maximisation of profit making.

Gender, in particular, is a key asset for Indian exporters, and it is exploited in different ways across the Sweatshop Regime. The excerpts in question discuss the case of the Sumangali Scheme in India, an infamous scheme targeting young girls and their desire to save towards their future. Its features are described in the excerpts. Besides epitomising the harsh ways in which gender inequality is entrenched into India’s clothing industry today, the Sumangali case also speaks loudly about the relationship between gender and labour ‘unfreedom’. By 2005, the first time I visited Tamil Nadu, labour activists were already comparing the scheme to a modern form of slavery. Today, the debate on modern slavery has reached a global dimension.

While too many accounts stress the ‘extraordinary nature’ of modern slavery, the Sumangali case, like the other cases discussed in the book, shows instead how given practices are quite ordinary, well-established locally, and thriving despite attempts at ethical interventions. In fact, this is a crucial point the book also stresses in its conclusions. Far from laying at the very extremes of the global system through which our clothes are stitched and delivered to our high streets, bondage, unfreedom and what many now call ‘modern slavery’ is simply business as usual for the many working poor who toil across such system. Ultimately, such slavery is only as modern as our clothes; based on the global quest for ever cheaper labour, as reflected in the price tags of the blouses, jeans, and sweaters we wear every day.
Learn more about The Sweatshop Regime at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue