Sweatshops, Firsthand

Sweatshops, Firsthand

A review of Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take on the Global Factory, by Miriam Ching Yoon Louie.


Thousands of students around the country have been protesting US sweatshop practices in recent years. Such efforts, duly noted by mainstream media, serve to call public attention to long-neglected labor issues. But we hear far less about the tireless, courageous organizing and action by the sweatshop workers themselves, the vast majority of them women.

Sweatshop Warriors corrects our ignorance with a beautifully written account of their lives, struggles, lessons learned and lessons for all of us. The message is profound: A mass antisweatshop movement needs to be built from the bottom up, led by the workers themselves. That effort has a key role to play in the overall anti-corporate globalization movement today.

Miriam Louie's book is an in-depth study, packed with information, rich in social, political and economic analysis. She sees the sweatshop warriors in the context of recent US history, including the steady decline of unionization, longstanding racism within unions, the effects of deindustrialization and capitalist restructuring. At the same time, Sweatshop Warriors is totally alive, thanks to her drawing on hundreds of personal interviews for this book. The call to "Let the women themselves speak!" rings out in every chapter.

We can also thank Louie's own history as granddaughter and daughter of immigrant Asian workers (Chinese and Korean) as well as her thirty years in student, labor, women of color, Asian community and Third World solidarity organizations. That activism includes twelve years of service with Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) in the Bay Area, plus media work for Latina workers, laid off by Levi's in San Antonio, who formed Fuerza Unida (United Force).

The book focuses on Chinese, Korean, Thai and Mexican women active in community-based workers' centers located in New York, El Paso, San Antonio, Oakland and Los Angeles. When noticed at all, these workers are usually seen as victims, not as the trailblazers they have become. "Tucked inside their weathered work jeans, double-knit pants, cleaning uniforms, cooking aprons and serving caps are continents and worlds of experience," Louie tells us. They live firsthand the globalization of sweatshop production, part of the process of global economic restructuring and its IMF/World Bank neoliberal mandates. This has made them whistleblowers on what she calls the sweatshop pyramid of exploitation. (The effects of globalization at what we might call "ground zero" can also be found in Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy, by Grace Chang, and Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadow of Affluence, by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo.)

The workers have, for example, put a glaring spotlight on how subcontracting operates and how it can be that for a dress retailing at $100, only $1.72 ends up going to the sewer ($15 to the contractor). In fighting this system, AIWA waged a long, intense campaign to make fancy-dress manufacturer Jessica McClintock accept responsibility for meeting workers' payment demands when the subcontractor did not. Subcontracting has been especially brutal in the garment industry, but it operates in industries and services across the board. These include globalized industries like electronics, toys, shoes, plastics and auto parts, along with locally based sectors like healthcare, restaurants, construction, food processing and clerical work.

Through the interviews, a real-life picture emerges that challenges the typical image of immigrant workers. For one thing, these women often worked in their home countries before coming to the United States. Some knew labor organizing and struggle, as in the militant Korean labor movement of the 1970s or the September 19 Garment Workers Union in Mexico, formed after the devastating 1985 earthquake. Their decision to come to the United States runs counter to the view of the typical migrant being a single male. Whether at home or in this country, they experience the oppressions attached to class, gender, race and nationality.

The working conditions they face here include laboring 100 hours a week for less than $2 an hour, no overtime, severely limited bathroom breaks, no health coverage or any other benefits. Sometimes the women are not paid at all, almost enslaved, or even held captive in a factory like the El Monte, California, sweatshop where more than seventy Thai and Latino workers existed behind razor wire and locked gates until the August 2, 1995, raid that exposed this horror to the world.

One of those workers, Rojana "Na" Cheunchujit, recalls her experience, beginning in Thailand: "This person came to the village to recruit people to work at the shop in El Monte. He told me that the pay was very good," that she would work from 8 am to 6 pm five days a week and that she could come if she paid him $5,000, which she did. But the reality was completely different:

We worked 20 hours a day for the whole one year and four months I was there…. We ordered food from the owners, but they charged us really high prices…. They told me I had to pay an additional $4,800. They said they would keep me as long as it took to pay off the $4,800 debt…. The owners threatened to set the homes of our families [back in Thailand] on fire if we dared to escape.

Less dramatically brutal sweatshops are of course still exploitative. In Los Angeles, the nation's garment manufacturing center, Chinese women average $5,464 annually and Mexican women $6,500, while owners pocket millions in salaries and bonuses–$8.7 million in a single year in the case of George Marciano of the Guess? company. Runaway companies have been another source of disaster for garment workers. Viola Casares, one of some 1,150 mainly Chicana women who worked at Levi's San Antonio plant (then its largest in the United States), remembers how she felt on the day in January 1990 when they were all called together at 7:30 am to be told of Levi's immediate plant closure and move to Costa Rica, where labor was cheaper. "I'll never forget how the white man in the suit said they had to shut us down to stay competitive…. We stood there like mummies. I heard some people fainted. They didn't even tell us in Spanish, just in English." But they didn't stay "mummies" very long. Starting in the 1980s, workers like the Levi's women began to pioneer creative organizing campaigns and have scored precedent-setting victories. They have established independent workers' centers, like those mentioned above, that enable them to resist oppression and begin to fashion new ways to work, live, think and create.

Their tactics include consumer boycotts, pickets, public demonstrations, media coverage and work with elected officials. The centers have helped them meet basic needs like learning English as steps in ending their isolation. In short, they have fought for their rights "from the bottom of the sweatshop pyramid." They had to do this because the existing labor movement failed them.

Sweatshop Warriors also shows how the women have been through their own internal process of transformation, another reason this book is so compelling. Often the first step was simply overcoming fear. Kim Chong Ok, a restaurant worker, speaks about her first experience with the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates (KIWA) in Los Angeles:


I worked four people's jobs. The employer reduced the wages…. That upset me and everyone else. We eventually went to KIWA…. KIWA [told us] about labor law…. When I first visited KIWA, I was so frightened…. But now I have seen for myself that they're doing such good things.


The women often face major challenges as daughters, wives, mothers, grandmothers. In those struggles, as Viola Casares commented, "Fuerza Unida made us strong women, strong mothers…. I told my husband [an alcoholic and womanizer] when he tried to come back, 'You have to want the new Viola, not the old Viola that only stayed home.'"

Carmen Ibarra López, also of Fuerza Unida, said: "You know, I was born and grew up in a culture where the women didn't have a voice. So I said I'm not going to do the same with my children. I want to teach them to be different…my son is the oldest, and my daughter is the youngest. I taught my son how to clean house, wash clothes…. I said 'Your sister is not going to be your maid.'"

In the course of fighting for their rights, the women developed a collective, group-oriented methodology. Fuerza Unida members tell how they broke through the competitive patterns and narrow self-interest they had learned on Levi's production lines. Kyung Park, a Korean restaurant worker in KIWA, said in her interview, "It's very easy to just think about yourself and get on with your own life, but there are people who work hard to win some justice. This is really good and important work and I'm proud to be part of it."

Some groups, like the El Paso-based organization La Mujer Obrera, have conducted political education classes, including economics. The women gained new skills and awareness that enabled them to provide leadership to communities under siege, build friendships and win victories. As a result, this book is about much more than the resistance of one sector of exploited workers. It is about what they have done for economic democracy, gender justice and human rights that benefits all of us.

The women's activism has influenced trade unions in various ways. It has taught them about incorporating more workers of color and immigrant workers, regardless of legal status. That must be one reason the AFL-CIO finally began to demand rights for undocumented workers. The sweatshop warriors' example has taught some unions about new tactics and new relations between members and leaders–a whole, more collective vision of labor organizing. The women's activism exemplifies the strategy of labor and community forces uniting to win social justice that has greatly influenced progressive and left organizers.

They have also set an example of solidarity across national and racial lines. For example, KIWA filed a lawsuit on behalf of fifty-five Latina/os. Thai and Latino workers who had together endured the El Monte slave labor experience met regularly to exchange information and plan action. In 1999 they finally won more than $4 million from major companies connected with the El Monte sweatshop. Their campaigns, along with those of Chinese workers in Oakland, helped pass a California law imposing a "wage guarantee" in the garment industry that protects those working under contractors for private label manufacturers.

Miriam Louie calls the sweatshop workers who transformed themselves into sweatshop warriors "Living Cultural Treasures of our communities," and their campaigns and creations "Intangible Cultural Assets." (Both terms are used by Koreans in referring to their collective heritage.) Those assets include the "nuggets of truth" the women unearthed, which conclude the book. Among them is the effect on the women as they learned more about what their rights are and the multiple violations of those rights. Kim Seung Min cried when she went to KIWA for help and saw the picture on the wall of Chun Tae Il, the young garment worker martyr who set himself on fire holding a copy of the Korean labor code in his hand. Energized by anger, the sweatshop women began fighting defensive battles to win some basic rights that other sectors take for granted. As they fought and learned more about their rights from their organizations, they became even more angry and energized.

In the course of fighting for specific demands, the women would come to challenge the system underlying sweatshops and go beyond issues of what is legally guaranteed. For example, they might begin a campaign for unpaid back wages but move on to organizing against employers that run away to enjoy some "free trade." They talked back to the bosses, the author adds, and in doing so challenged old patterns of control, domination, censorship, fear and internalized oppression within their industries, communities and families. Such challenges reached one high point when a group of dignified, middle-aged Latinas startled Levi's by chaining themselves to the main doors of its posh international headquarters building in San Francisco.

These warriors also moved from fighting defensively to taking the offensive when they began defining the kind of society they wanted with actions to create it. In El Paso, La Mujer Obrera laid out what the workers needed: not only jobs with dignity but also housing, nutrition, healthcare. The former Levi's workers started their own sewing and food co-ops, while Koreatown restaurant workers began designing their own health, check-cashing and childcare systems, all of it by trial and error, constantly learning.

Miriam Louie tells us at the beginning of her book to see the sweatshop warriors neither as victims nor as superwomen. Now we know why. Her final words are of warning, exhortation and encouragement. Listening to these women must not be "an act of consumerism," a kind of voyeurism. We have to take on new challenges ourselves, she says, wherever we may work and live. We must train our ears to hear "the vibrant voices…of grassroots folk on the bottom, the foundation rock of mass movements." And any strong movement must include grassroots women. "Through their trust and belief in the wisdom of women workers, these sweatshop warriors are calling on the power of the people to share and analyze their life experiences and map the road ahead…they recognize that their strength depends on working together and pooling their knowledge and resources."

Sweatshop Warriors is an angry, joyous book–and that's not a contradiction.

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