Invisible women, slow violence and academic lacunae(?) #Manchester University lecture

The lecture – about the high cost of cheap clothes – was brilliant.  It was frustrating, for a reason I could only put my finger on after the Q&A (l’esprit de l’escalier).

The Global Development Institute of University of Manchester is putting on a two-day workshop. Tonight’s seminar, “Global Value Chains, Market-Making, and the Rise of Precarious Work” which opens it, was by Assistant Professor Jennifer Bair of Colorado University . Her very enjoyable and informative lecture was in two parts.

Firstly she explained how Brian Uzzi (1)had done some seminal work on the nature of the New York garment industry, and how it had a co-operative mentality between owners, who benefited from a lack of labour strife etc etc. But she said this was only a moment in time, and that this co-operativeness had come about thanks to … a union (you know, the people who gave us weekends, 40 hour weeks, freedom of speech, etc etc).

The New York garment industry had sprung up first making clothes for slaves, then uniforms for (Northern) soldiers in the Civil War. In the 1870s, sewing machines came along, changing the dynamics. There was a big strike in 1909, (think Triangle Fire ) by women (many of them recent immigrants), and your typical class-war style moves by factory owners to outsource, to undercut unionisation etc etc. Things didn’t finally improve until the Roosevelt administration. Then, between the 1940s and 1990, garment workers were very well paid. However, by the 1970s, with renewed ‘globalisation’ and the reduction of tariffs, increased competition gave company owners more arguments to cut terms and conditions…. You can guess the rest.
But the key point I took home was this (and the phrasing is mine) – a bunch of working class women fought tooth and nail to ensure that they could have basic rights and dignity. They won, after decades of struggle. And then some academics mistook the changed world for a ‘natural’ thing, and interpreted it on the basis of relationships between owners [I may be being unfair to Bair here, but that is the gist I took.]

The second half of her story seminar dealt with the world as it is now, and the way that the relationships between suppliers and retailers that Uzzi spoke of within the US have changed to a devil-take-the-hindmost/only-price-matters situation, where workers in Nicaragua are competing with workers in Bangladesh, with workers in Pakistan. It’s no surprise, but over the last twenty years, workers rights have been screwed over, and the price for clothes has dropped dramatically. A pretty familiar story, but she told it well.
She focussed a bit on the Rana Plaza disaster (1192 workers killed) , a classic “focusing event” if ever there were, and the “Accord” that has emerged from it.
The Q and A was good – people picking up on various points, about the nature of the state, the nature of the industry, corporate social responsibility (sic).

What was frustrating?
This: I totally buy Bair’s point that academics missed the “created-ness” of the world they studied. But – at least in her presentation; I haven’t yet read her work – I think Bair sort of did the same in the second half of her talk! Yes, she mentioned that 80% of Bangladesh’s export earnings come from clothing exports and thus the power of the industry within/over the Bengali state is enormous, but there is a wider point here not just about neoliberalism (a word I don’t think I heard, but I could be wrong), but also the victory of global capital at the point of a gun. The suppression of movements for democracy and workers rights (in, for example, Nicaragua, a country referenced in the presentation) is part of the COUNTER-struggle by capital. With armies (and counter-insurgency) at their disposal a bunch of state managers women fought tooth and nail, with techniques developed by the Nazis, when they hadn’t been developed by the US,  to ensure that workers would be stripped of basic rights and dignity. And they won, after decades of struggle. We should not forget that.
[Want details? Noam Chomsky – especially “World Orders, Old and New“, which has some passing references to the deliberate destruction of the Indian textile industry in the 18th and 19th century]

Oh, and slow violence.
To do (after my second year review)
Read Bair (who looks cool)
Read Uzzi (who looks cool)

[1] I hadn’t heard of him, but then I am pig-ignorant of some of the literature that I need to know; tonight was remedial]

See also
A blog post I did about global value chains; Outa Tuna with the natural world
My review of an excellent book by Jeffrey Wilson on Governing Global Production: Resource Networks in the Asia-Pacific Steel Industry.

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