Fashion Victims: textile and clothing workers worldwide

There's a saying among girls in the slums of Bangladesh: if you're lucky, you'll be a prostitute - if you're unlucky, you'll be a garment worker. The fashion industry is big business. It makes a lot of money - but over the world, textile and clothing workers are poor. Yet they work hard. They say nobody ever got rich though hard work. But it's not true. The people who work hard never got rich through working hard. But the rich got rich by getting other people like us to work hard for them. That's the way of the world under capitalism. Mick Brooks explains how surplus value is generated in the fashion industry.

There's a saying among girls in the slums of Bangladesh: if you're lucky, you'll be a prostitute - if you're unlucky, you'll be a garment worker. The fashion industry is big business. It makes a lot of money - but the workers in the industry don't see much of it. All over the world, textile and clothing workers are poor. Yet they work hard. They say nobody ever got rich though hard work. But it's not true. The people who work hard never got rich through working hard. But the rich got rich by getting other people like us to work hard for them. That's the way of the world under capitalism.

In 1992 Michael Jordan earned $20 million for endorsing Nike running shoes. What does that mean? Michael is a famous basketball player in the United States. He lets them use his photo on their adverts. That doesn't sound too hard, does it? The Nike brand name - just the brand name on shoes - is supposed to be worth more than $8 billion. That's why Nike had no problem breaking the Michael Jordan record by bunging Tiger Woods $90 million in a sponsorship deal this year.

Anyway, Michael got more on his 1992 deal than the entire 30,000 strong work force in Indonesia who make Nike shoes full time. In that year they banged out 19 million pairs of trainers.

Nike is a big firm. They're the 77th biggest firm in the USA and 167th biggest in the world. They're worth $17 billion on the stock exchange. Last year they made $553 million profit from their workers.

Disney is an even bigger outfit. They're the 20th biggest corporation in the USA and the 35th biggest in the world. They're worth over $43 billion on the stock exchange. They made $1,380 million (nearly $1.4 billion) from 71,000 workers in 1995. That's $19,436 - very nearly $20,000 for each worker. Their name on items of clothing and merchandise is supposed to be worth $32 billion.

Their chief executive officer Michael Eisner made $200 million in 1996 from his salary and his stock options.

What's a stock option? It's a right for management to get shares in the their firm for next to nothing, that's what. It's a way for rich people to get even richer with very little effort..

How does Disney get to make so much money? Kids love their cartoons. We don't know who draws the cartoons. The reason we don't know is because the workers who make up Pocahontas or the Lion King sign away all their rights on the design to the Disney Corporation with their employment contract. But we do know Michael Eisner didn't design anything.

Anyway Michael Eisner's $200 million in 1996 works out at $97,600 per hour - that's just under $100,000 for one hour's work. Eisner gets paid as much in one hour as 325,000 Disney workers would earn. The workers in Haiti are the ones who make the Pocahontas, Lion King and Hunchback of Notre Dame T-shirts and pyjamas and sew the ears on Mickey Mouse toys. At the N.S. Mart, L.V. Myles and Classic Apparel factories in Haiti Disney workers are trying to bring up a family on a minimum wage of 28 cents an hour.

Let's look at L.V. Myles. Management say they're paying their workers 42c an hour. We don't think they're telling the truth, but we'll give them the benefit of the doubt for this little calculation.

At L.V. Myles twenty workers get out 1,000 pairs of Pocahontas pyjamas every day. The pyjamas sell in Wal Mart (a big American shopping chain) for $11.97. So twenty workers produce $11,970 worth of goods in a day ($11.97 x 1,000). Each one gets paid 42c an hour for eight hours (8 x 42c = $3.32). So collectively they earn $66.40 (20 x $3.32)

They get just over _ of one per cent of the value of what they produce. Put another way, when another pair of Pocahontas pyjamas rings up the tills in the United States for $11.97, the machinists who made it will get just 7c. That's exploitation, no doubt about it.

But exploitation is not just a thing that happens in Haiti and other third world countries. Let's look at what happens to textile workers in the United States. The figures come from the research department of the American textile workers' union UNITE.

If an American woman spends $100 on a dress:-

  • $54 goes to the shop. But all the retailer does is pass the goods along and hang them up for people to look at. What about the rest of the money?
  • $18 goes on materials. The manufacturing firm just buys these in.
  • $16 is manufacturing overheads and profit. This is a tricky one. Heating and lighting are costs, just like fabrics and zip fasteners. But some of the 'costs' will really be a share of the profits. Rent, for instance is really a part of the profit that gets syphoned off by another section of the property owning class. Adam Smith said of landlords that 'they love to reap where they have not sown'. Anyway, to keep the story simple we'll assume $15 of those $16 really are costs and the poor old manufacturer only makes $1 on a $100 dress. What does that leave?
  • Just $12 goes to the worker who makes the dress. But that's the one who produces the wealth!

Let's go over it again. Of the $100:-

  • $18 is materials
  • We are saying $15 are other overheads
  • Total costs = $33
  • Then there's wages - $12
  • How about profits?
  • There's the $1 that goes to the manufacturing boss of course
  • But then there's that retail markup of $54
  • So the real profit from the worker is $55 out of $100 - more than half the value.

Of the $100 selling price $55 is unpaid labour while only $12 is paid. To put it another way, if the machinist is paid by the piece - and most clothing workers do piecework - and produces the dress in 67 minutes, they're working just 12 minutes towards their wages and 55 minutes for other people.

Surplus value

Marx first showed how workers are exploited. The value of a commodity can be resolved into three parts. First there is what he called constant capital. This is the raw materials, depreciation on machinery and other things needed to make the commodity in question. These pass their value unchanged to the final product, that's why he called it constant capital. Then there's what the inland revenue calls added value (as in value added tax). This all comes from the work force. All the sweat shop owner does is to shout at the workers. This new value is divided into two parts. The other part of capital laid out by the boss goes on variable capital. This is laid out on wages to keep the workers going. Marx called it the purchase of labour power. Wages differ widely between countries, as we shall see. But in all the countries where capitalist production predominates, at the end of the week or month the workers have no alternative but to keep on working for the bosses in order to make a living.

Marx called that part of his capital the boss lays out on wages variable capital. He did so because the buying of the workers' ability to work is the source of the capitalists' surplus. The unique quality of labour power is that putting it to work produces new values. This surplus value, as Marx calls it, is divided into rent, interest and profit - the revenues of all the unproductive classes. In our example a large part of the surplus is squandered on the sales effort. Think of all the other areas of the economy brimming over with money - such as financial services - which basically represent a drain of potentially useful surplus value.

To rewrite our example in marxist terms:-

  • constant capital is $33
  • variable capital is $12
  • surplus value is $55
  • the rate of surplus value or rate of exploitation (the amount of time the worker puts in to reproduce the elements of their wages compared with the amount of time the worker puts in enriching the capitalist class) is more than 450%.

Here's how the rich get rich and the poor stay poor. And it's true whether you work on a farm or in a factory, and whether you dish up burgers or write computer programmes. The rich get rich off our unpaid labour.

We've seen fashion is big business. We've seen that the big companies that dominate the industry make a lot of money out of their workers. But they're always looking for ways to make even more. That's why Disney's Pocahontas pyjamas are made in Haiti - because they can pay the workers there only 28 cents an hour, and they can't get away with that in the USA.

Fashion companies these days are multinational. They're footloose and they play the field. This is what employers pay clothing and textile workers in different countries for an hour's work. The workers don't get all of this money in wages always, because in rich countries it includes national insurance payments:-

So a German worker costs the boss more than seventy times as much as a worker in Pakistan. Now you can see why Nike shut down their plants in New Hampshire and Maine. First they went to Korea and Taiwan. Later they decided they could pay even less and make even more money by basing their operations in Indonesia, Thailand and China.

Longer hours

The bosses are always out to get that little bit more out of the workers. One obvious way they do that is to get you to work longer hours.

Lina Rodriguez Meza, a clothing worker in New York explains:

"When it's busy, we work up to sixty to sixty-three hours. The conditions in the factory are not good. The bathrooms are outside on our floor." (toilets to you and me) In the factory where I work, almost everyone is from Ecuador. Those people work hard. And since they come very far from their land, they come and are afraid of losing their jobs, so they enslave themselves. Almost no one goes to the bathroom, they feel embarrassed. The bathroom is outside. You have to leave the factory, go to the hallway. It's a bit dangerous because anyone can enter the bathrooms. Also, there's a part in the building that is unprotected. You can easily fall into that empty space".

Lina's in a difficult position. Nobody wants to put in over sixty hours in a week. But the basic rate is so low. And in the fashion industry work is completely casual, as she explains. "Last week we only worked for fifteen hours. And now we worked two days in a row, but it seems like we're going to be off again."

Lina actually needs the overtime to make ends meet. She is a worker in the richest country in the world.

What's going on here? As we have seen, there is a compulsion on the capitalist class to try to get more and more out of us, to raise the rate of exploitation. One way to do this is what Marx called the extraction of absolute surplus value. This means exploiting the worker over a longer time. For instance if a worker does four hours to earn their keep and then puts in another four hours to help the boss out, the rate of exploitation is 100%. But if the worker can be induced to slave for ten hours a day, then that extra two hours is a free lunch for their boss. In Marx's time the capitalists just used their class power to lengthen the working day. Since workers were usually paid by the day, the struggle over the length of the working day was a basic form of class struggle. Read Marx's classic chapter 'The working day' in Capital, even if you never get round to the rest of the book.

Critics of Marx say that's all out of date. What is happening to Lina and millions like her shows that the extraction of absolute surplus value is still a very effective way of lining the bosses' pockets. That's why it's still going on as we enter a new millennium in the heart of New York. We all know the jobs - security guards, caterers, cleaners, drivers, railway workers - where it's understood that you'll have to work overtime to make enough to feed a family on because the basic rate is so low.

Just as they shop around looking for cheap labour, so clothing firms will take on women if they're cheaper than men. And they'll take on children if they're cheaper than both.

Child labour in toy factories

No goods are so characteristic of childhood as toys, of course. Yet some kids never get to play with toys, because they're too busy working to make them. Half of the toys bought for American children are imported from China these days, for Disney Mattel and Eden Toys. Chinese kids work for 13 cents an hour making Barbie, Sindy Power Rangers and all the other famous names. These workers have had their childhood stolen! They are working 12 to 16 hours a day - up to 112 hours a week - and getting less than $50 in a month. Protective clothing ? - forget it. Relaxation? - sleeping 16 to a room in dormitoriesand being spied on.

The markup on Disney imported toys from China has been worked out at 1,000 %. In other words these Chinese children work little more than an hour a day to earn the elements of their wages. All the rest of the time they're working for free, for the employers. Such generosity with their time!

The International Labour Organisation estimates that 73 million children around the world are working full time. That's one in eight 10 to 14 year olds.

Let's hear from Wendy Diaz who's been working for Global Fashion in El Salvador since she was thirteen:

"At Global Fashion, there are about 100 minors like me, thirteen, fourteen years old - some even twelve. On the Kathy Lee pants (trousers) we were forced to work almost every day from 8.00am to 9.00pm...Sometimes they kept us all night long, working....working all these hours, I made at most...31 U.S. cents. No one can survive on these wages....The supervisors insult us and yell at us to work faster. Sometimes they throw the garment in your face, or grab and shove at you. The plant is hot like an oven. The bathroom is locked, and you need permission and can use it twice a day. Even the pregnant women they abuse. Sometimes the managers touch the girls, our legs or buttocks. Many of us would like to go to night school but we can't because they always force us to work overtime. We have no health care, sick days or vacation....They said they would fire us all if we tried to organise. I am an orphan. I live in a one-room home with eleven people. I have to work to help three small brothers."

Workers fighting back

But our story is not just about workers suffering passively. Workers are fighting back - when they can.When workers in a Disney factory tried to set up a trade union to get that $5 a day that's the legal minimum wage over there, Eisner responded by sacking 150.

Now and again we win a few. Iqbal Musih, the small twelve year old boy, bent over the loom since age four, won his freedom through the Bonded Labour Liberation Front of Lahore, Pakistan. He has since learned to read and write, freed hundreds of other children, spoken at government hearings in Europe and America, won the Reebok Youth Action Award and received a standing offer for a scholarship from Brandeis University. He planned to become a lawyer, much like Ehsan Ullah Khan, the man who heads the BLLF and freed him. Iqbal was fond of saying at rallies, "I used to be afraid of the master. Now the master is afraid of me."

On Easter Sunday in 1995, during a visit with his mother in the village of Muridke, thirteen bullets from a sawn-off shotgun were fired into Iqbal's stomach, head and chest while he was riding his bicycle. Iqbal Masih's murder, which the BLLF believes was carried out on the orders of the carpet manufacturers, has never been solved. International statements by Benazir Bhutto's government on the subject proved to be a joke. "the culprit" they announced " had been taken into custody: he had found Iqbal sodomising a donkey and had shot him out of moral outrage.," Then the story changed. The man himself was sodomising the donkey, was discovered by Iqbal, and shot him. "Pakistanis had a good laugh when these stories came on the news," said one, "Even we didn't believe them".

This story is not just about the third world. It's about how the big clothing companies have brought third world conditions right back to the rich countries. This is what Americans read was happening in their richest state in 1995:

"On August 2 1995, the American public was horrified by press reports about the discovery at an apartment complex in El Monte, California, of seventy-two Thai garment workers who had been held in slavery for up to seven years, sewing clothes for some of the nation's top manufacturers and retailers. The workers laboured over eighteen hours a day in a compound enclosed by barbed wire. Armed guards imposed discipline. Long hours and illegal working conditions are standard business practices in the industry, and the El Monte story has helped to dramatise public awareness of these crimes But the story told here is about how workers have endured, and have mobilised to bring about change.

The Thai workers were industrial homeworkers, forced to eat, sleep live and work in the place they called 'home'. The slave labour compound where they were confined was a two-story apartment with seven units, surrounded by a ring of razor wire and iron guardrails with sharp ends pointing inward. Their captors, who supervised garment production and enforced manufacturer specifications and deadlines, ruled through fear and intimidation. Workers were forbidden to make unmonitored phone calls or write uncensored letters, and were forced to purchase goods from their captors, who charged four or five times the market price for food, toiletries and other daily necessities. Living under the constant threat of harm to themselves and to their families in Thailand, they laboured over sewing machines in dark garages and poorly lit rooms, making clothes for brand-name manufacturers sold in some of the biggest retail stores in America." (Julie Su)

Why do employers do this? They do it because they can. They do it because, no matter how much money they've got, they always feel the need for more.

Americans were shocked by the El Monte story because they thought things like that didn't happen in their country any more. They thought that things had got better.

For many textile and clothing workers in the United States, things had got better. Or rather textile and clothing workers had fought - and won - a battle for better wages and conditions.

"In 1909, a walkout of several hundred workers from the Triangle Shirtwaist Company sparked a strike of 20,000 shirtwaist makers throughout the industry. They were mainly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, their condition as the most viciously exploited workers in the industry long acknowledged but ineffectually addressed by both the male-dominated unions and government authorities. The strike became a cause, as community leaders.......joined the picket lines, raised funds and galvanised public opinion in support of the strike.

The following year it was the men's turn. In New York, 60,000 cloak makers, inspired by the success of the shirtwaist workers, paralysed the industry with a general strike. At the same time in Chicago workers at the Hart, Schaffner and Marx firm sparked an explosive strike in the city's garment industry that would give birth to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America....The cloak makers' strike led to what was called the Protocol of Peace (which) won universal acclaim." (Alan Howard)

So the workers struck for a little dignity and a better future for their families. Six months after the signing of the Protocol, 146 workers died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Pauline Newman tells it like it was - and still too often is:

"We started work at seven thirty in the morning , and during the busy season we worked until nine in the evening. They didn't give you any overtime and they didn't give you anything for supper money....The employers didn't recognise anyone working for them as a human being....if you went to the toilet and you were there longer than the floor lady thought you should be, you would be laid off for half a day and sent home.And, of course, that meant no pay. You were not allowed to have your lunch on the fire escape in the summertime. The door was locked to keep us in. That's why so many people were trapped when the fire broke out."

You see, the employers were just trying to save a little money. One way they save money is by blocking gangways with rolls of materials and finished goods. Another way they save money is by bolting emergency exits, so workers can't take unauthorised breaks.

In 1993 fires in toy factories in Thailand and China meant that 275 workers perished that year. Employers are still saving money and it's still at the expense of workers' lives. Same old story.

Most workers in the United States and the other rich countries did gain better wages and conditions - for a time. They did it by organising in trade unions and threatening the strike weapon. Any strike shows that when the workers stop working, nothing gets done. It's us that produces the wealth.

But now the big textile and clothing companies are trying to take back all the gains of past struggles. Why? - because they can. Because they can roam the world looking for cheap labour to exploit. Because they can sniff out and batten on to low pay pockets in rich countries. Because if they can use child labour, they will use child labour. Because if they can use slave labour, they will use slave labour.

Effects in rich countries

How does all this affect workers in rich countries such as the United States. In 1973 there were nearly 1 1/2 million clothing and textile workers in the USA. Some of them have lost their jobs as firms like Nike pull up stakes and go where they can get away with paying workers less. While only 4% of clothing was imported into the States in the 1960s, it's now gone up to 60%.

But 860,000 still work in the rag trade in the United States. American bosses have responded to foreign competition in two ways.

One way - as we have seen - is to create little third world enclaves of superexploitation right in the heart of the 'land of the free'. They've torn up union contracts all over America. In 1969 450,000 clothing workers in New York were members of unions. Now it's less than half that - just 200,000 hanging on to their cards. That's not just a statistic - you can almost smell the fear. While in Los Angeles 4,500 out of 5,000 garment factories are recognised as sweatshops.

The other response of textile and clothing companies in the rich countries to foreign competitors has been to make sure that, if they're paying you more than workers in Pakistan or El Salvador, they get more out of you.

American clothing bosses have cut costs by mechanising. Whereas only 6% of clothing production in the United States used modern machinery in the 1960s, twenty years later the business was 40% automated. As a result productivity in clothing manufacture has doubled in the rich countries over a twenty year period. In other words workers are producing twice as much as they did before. As a result they are working less time to make up the value of their wages and more time for the boss class. This is what Marx called the production of relative surplus value. Relative surplus value can be increased by raising the intensity of labour (which is what bosses were trying to do to British textile workers in the 1930s - as we see below) or by raising the productivity of labour through mechanisation.

What has happened to American workers' wages as a result of mechanisation? Clothing workers' wages in the USA buy exactly the same as they did twenty years ago. The entire benefits of this increased productivity has gone to the clothing employers.

What's this all about? We know that a simple and obvious way of raising the rate of exploitation when the labour movement is weak is to make the workers put in more hours to extract more absolute surplus value. Marx showed how this strategy came up against the resistance of the working class in the cotton textile industry in the middle of the nineteenth century. The workers imposed their own limits through strike action and later won a legal limit on the working day. If capitalists can't increase hours without limits to raise the rate of exploitation then they're going to have to make the workers achieve more in the hours when they do have them at their disposal. If a worker is knocking out twice as many dresses in eight hours, then they're reproducing the elements of their wages in two hours instead of four. That leaves six hours for the production of surplus value.

Intensity of labour

One way is raising the intensity of labour. If you can't lengthen hours, then make sure you get more out of you while you're in. Two classic ways of getting more sweat out of workers are speeding up the track and getting the workers to mind more machines.

This has been going on a long time. However much you produce for them they always want more. At the time of the great depression of 1929-33, the British cotton capitalists thought it was a good time to put the boot in to textile workers. They demanded that weavers mind six looms instead of four - like Japanese workers. The 'more-looms' dispute, went together with a demand for pay cuts of up to 12% - more work for less pay! This triggered a walkout of 150,000 weavers in Lancashire. After a bitter dispute in which police baton charges against picket lines became routine, the strike was sold out by the trade union tops. The Daily Express (!) commented " The Lancashire weaver has been betrayed...with the exception of a handful of manufacturers it is safe to say that the agreement has been honoured more in the breach than in the observance...Weavers in Burnley are in open revolt...They were promised 42 shillings a week (£2.10) when the six-loom system was introduced....Today many of them are going home with not more than 25 shillings a week (£1.25. Unemployment for a single person was 75p at the time)".

So this playing off workers in one country againsy another is an old game. It's a game that all workers lose at. Whatever happens, workers in the rich countries lose their jobs. But it would be wrong of them to blame workers in poor countries or the new machines. In either case the employers have taken a decision that workers are surplus to requirements - they are to blame for job losses.

Workers are not just victims. All over the world they are fighting back because they have to. Workers in rich countries such as the US did achieve better wages and conditions for a time as the fruits of their struggle. Now the bosses are trying to take it all back.

Workers in other countries are also fighting back. A few years ago all the big clothing companies thought Indonesia was the place to uproot to. The working class soared in number from ten million in number to 86 milliom, nearly half the population, under his rule, And why? Because Suharto was 'good for business'. It is not surprising that former President Suharto had such fond feelings for capitalism. He and his family had managed to monopolise most of the lucrative businesses in Indonesia as the fruits of office. The family is believed to have owned a fifth of the entire economy. So the Indonesian economy is supposed to be an income-generating mechanism for 200 million people, but in fact functioned as wealth generator for one family. Suharto's personal fortune is reckoned at $16 billion according to the American business magazine Forbes, while the family as a whole got away with $45 billion. This is more than the entire 'rescue package' the International Monetary Fund has recently pledged to lend the country because of the economic crisis in East Asia - compounded by the rampant pilfering of the Suhartos.

Suharto was 'good for business'. What does that mean? It means that while he and his family were looting the state, workers in the textile factories were trying to feed a family on 34cents an hour. Suharto's military dictatorship held workers down in the interests of multinational capital.

And Indonesian workers made the connection. The textile and clothing workers were a new generation of industrial worker sucked into the textile plants and fresh off the farm. In the villages they had been isolated. They didn't know what was going on in the country at large. They had no feeling of their collective power. In the factories they were still exploited - just exploited in a different way. But they knew that if they all came out together the wheels would stop. Individuals could be victimised but collectively they produced all the wealth, and they would have to be listened to. And the Suharto dictatorship was the shield of the factory owners preventing them organising to make their lives better. That is why the rag trade workers of Indonesia were in the vanguard of the movement that chased Suharto out of office in May 1998. In fact the heat lightning of the movement was the Nike strike in Java the previous year. Workers went on strike for four days and management made concessions. As soon as the workers were back, the bosses ratted on the deal. Showing the spirit that would topple Suharto, the workers in Nike rioted, smashing up plant windows and management cars. They got what they wanted.

Here's how it was explained in Socialist Appeal no 70 by an Indonesian textile worker. "Reform did not enter the factories. Here in Sritex, 13,000 workers work an average of 11 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week. We earn 155,00 rupiah a month (approximately £15). The military have a permanent unit in the factory. The walls are protected by barbed wire. Some 100 plain clothed military check the workers on the floor for dissident voices or union activists. When we go into action we are still beaten up by the military...Our factory is the property of Suharto's son in law and his daughter. That explains a lot".

You won't stop the bosses exploiting workers. As long as they are bosses, they have to do that. But you'll never stop workers fighting back against exploitation either. As long as they are wage workers they will have to fight for a better future.

Mick Brooks
March, 1999

Much of the material for this article has been taken from the collection 'No sweat' edited by Andrew Ross and published by Verso. The Amsterdam-based 'Clean clothes campaign' ( also issues exposes and campaigns against sweated labour in the industry. They deserve the support of every socialist.