Thursday, November 10, 2005

T-shirts and Globalization

Pietra Rivoli's The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy is a thoroughly worthwhile book. If anything, it's entertaining. It also makes a lot of good points, albeit in an extended-anecdote fashion. On sweatshops:
Like their sisters in time, textile and clothing workers in China today have low pay, long hours, and poor working conditions. Living quarters are cramped and rights are limited, the work is boring, the air is dusty, and the noise is brain numbing. The food is bad, the fences are high, and the curfews inviolate. As generations of mill girls and seamstresses from Europe, America, and Asia are bound together by this common sweatshop experience--controlled, exploited, overworked, and underpaid--they are bound together too by one absolute certainty, shared across both oceans and centuries: This sure beats the hell out of life on the farm. [Emphasis Rivoli's.]
On the race to the bottom:
The countries that have lost the race to the bottom are some of the most advanced economies in the world today, but they share a common heritage in the cotton mill and the sweatshop as the ignition switch for the urbanization, industrialization, and economic diversification that followed, as well as for the economic and social liberation of women from the farm. The now high-income workers have priced themselves out of work in the sweatshops, and these countries no longer have the desperate rural poverty that pushed and pulled women from the farms to textile and apparel factories. The workers are now neither cheap nor docile, and offer comparative advantages to other industries, in auto manufacturing, financial services, and information technology. While it was never a happy day when the mill closed, a padlocked cotton mill is also a sign that the economies, and the workers, by losing the race to the bottom, have emerged as victors.


But of all the rallying cries of the anti-globalization movement, the call fo "stop the race to the bottom" is both the scariest and the most nonsensical, especially when it comes from rich country activists who owe their own prosperity to the very race they wish to halt for others. Who, we might ask, would these activists like to keep on the farm? Yet if some activists are misguided in their ideas about stopping the race to the bottom, others are a powerful force in changing the nature of the bottom itself.


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