Post-Blog Week Four: Garment Industry “Sweatshops”

Our previous discussions on the empowerment and individualism that fashion brings to women, generates a general view of the fashion industry.  The film, Made in L.A., showed us a different perspective on how the fashion industry can, in fact, disempower and exploit women.  The public generally does not link the term “sweatshop” to fashion,  although they do play a huge part in what Nancy Green describes as fashion cycles.  Sweatshops are workplaces where employees are exploited, paid very low wages, lack benefits  and are subjected to working in horrible conditions. This is nothing new to the world of fashion.  It has been a constant cycle of supply and demand.  Mass production forced the involment of sweatshops not only within the U.S. but internationally.The fashion industry demands for large amounts of ready-to-wear clothing at affordable prices.  This is the reason why cheap labor is required to fullfill the needs of these demands.

Immigrant women of Chinese and Hispanic descent are usually the main groups of people to be contracted to work in the garment industry.  These women have little to no agency within this type of environment.  Exploitation of workers is common and many refuse to seek justice because of fear of deportation.  Language barriers cause issues between employer and employee as well.  There is also the issue of sterotyping the common sweatshop worker as being uneducated.  It is ironic how the same industry that claims to bring a sense of freedom to women will also subordinate them to a mere “insignificant ” person.

Sweatshop environments can cause these women to peceive themselves as worthless, without dignity. They are stripped of all positive judgements and subjected to harsh conditions while everyone outside this industry profits from their hard work.  This does not seem to only affect the women alone but the family as a whole.  Networking among relatives is common in immigrant families.  Although the garment industry is composed  of  mainly women, it is not rare to find men working in a Sweatshops.  Other family members such as brothers, sisters and daughters may work together all at once. The struggle to provide a family’s basic needs may cause family turmoil.  The film Real Women Have Curves demonstrate how women in sweatshops can be affected psychologically and emotionally.  Fashion can demean women.  In this first clip we see the typical working conditions of a small sweatshop L.A.  The second clip shows America Ferrera and her sister trying to negotitiate with the owners of the garments business so that the workers are paid an advance in order to pay their bills.  Workers are not often paid on time and since there is no legal documentation that protects their labor rights, nothing can be done for them.

Discussion Question:

1. What other ways can the fashion industry exploit and disempower women in the U.S?

2. We have discussed racialization within the fashion industry.  Do you believe this can be a reason behind the majority of sweatshop workers to be minorities?

3. Comparing the clips from Real Women Have Curves and Made in L.A., did you notice any similarities in the way these women carry themselves in society?


10 thoughts on “Post-Blog Week Four: Garment Industry “Sweatshops”

  1. The videos posted serve as an interesting insight in to the relationship between contractors and business owners, representing the level of exploitation as two-fold, effecting both contractor and factory workers. The differences between them and the character of the business owner couldn’t have been more apparent, even though both were female. Their dress, demeanour and manners draw attention to the difference in their characters and address the harsh reality of the manufacture of clothes for the fashion world.

    The fashion industry doesn’t only exploit women through the existence of sweatshops, but also in the way of expecting perfection and turning out expensive clothing. The ongoing debate over what is beautiful stems from the fashion industry’s compulsion to throw out skinnier-than-ever models onto their runways, in advertisements and on the covers of women’s magazines across the country. Attempts to overrule the belief that skinny is perfection for example on America’s Next Top Model where audiences have seen a plus size model’s accepted into the final rounds, the celebration of larger celebrities (although in the case of most they generate more interest after having lost weight, e.g Jennifer Hudson) and many stores stocking larger sizes have barely touched the surface of this problem. The image of the ideal size, skin colour, hair colour and facial and bodily features is probably the most common disempowerment of women by way of the fashion industry. Women can be made to feel like second-class citizens by stores, trends, celebrities and societies ingrained judgements over those who do not conform to the ideal female.

    The cost of fashion these days is also reflective of Nancy Green’s belief that the manufacture of clothes has occurred as a progression from homemade clothing to mass-manufactured garments. This has not only brought about the exploitation of women through sweatshops, but also the huge markup companies will make out of cheap labor and high store prices. Just like the women who make the clothes, the market of buyers also suffer exploitation. Good quality clothing which will stand the test of time is almost impossible to find for a reasonable price, nonetheless within the budgets of working class women at all ages.

    Obviously there have been attempts to erode the existence of sweatshops, for example American Apparel have a policy to pay all factory workers in LA the same wage as their shop floor employees worldwide. This equality amongst wages ensures minimal exploitation and disempowerment of workers within the company. Nevertheless, having spoken with a previous visual merchandiser from AA, she found that being paid the same wage as workers in LA meant that she could not afford her lifestyle in Toronto on the pay she was receiving and also felt exploited through the long hours she was made to work (sometimes overnight), with no sign of bonuses, commission or overtime.

  2. First of all, I liked the contradiction you pointed about about fashion being a sense of freedom for some women while exploiting others. I originally had not thought of that while watching “Made in LA” and it helps reinforce the problems of the fashion industry when we take the moment to realize that what helps others causes troubles for some women. A week earlier, I had just watched “Real Women have Curves” for the first time and was stunned by the harsh conditions and family involvement that went into the sweat shop. The business caused a great divide in the family and even had the power to almost keep the youngest daughter from continuing her education.

    I agree with the above comment about how the fashion industry exploits and disempowers women. When flipping through a fashion magazine it is hard not to feel a bit self conscious. Displayed across the pages are gorgeous, thin women dressed perfectly. Even though it is common knowledge that these women are airbrushed, that fact does not seem to matter to most women. It is still extremely difficult not to compare oneself to the women in fashion. It can be disheartening when this occurs and I think some women buy clothes believing it will make them better. I think the fashion industry takes advantage of this. Women are also disempowered by fashion by the cost and designer of the clothes. There is definitely a fashion hierarchy and where one fits along it can determine self-worth to themselves and others. Those who wear nicer clothes can be perceived as being superior, just by their outfits and vice versa. The fashion industry and the images they produce can damage the self-worth of certain women.

    I think the “Made in LA” film accurately explained why the majority of sweatshop workers were minorities. If these workers enter the country illegally and do not have a strong grasp on the English language, they do not have many places to turn. In a way, they are forced into the sweatshops because this is the only place that they can earn any money (however small it may be.) I would be interested to find out if the majority of workers in the sweatshop are women (they seemed to be from both the films) and if there is a particular reason for this. I am not sure if there would be besides the cultural belief that the woman gender belong with the garment industry and men do not. Either way, it is an interesting subject that I wish one of the movies would have addressed.

    I find your last question difficult to answer. In “Real Women Have Curves,” I was struck by how many of the women workers felt that they belonged there. They gave America Ferrera’s character gruff and criticized her when she acted up and expressed distaste for the work; they accused her of being stuck-up. I was also saddened by the scene in which the older sister is asking for an advance payment from the executive. Her strong presence is transformed into a soft spoken, easily malleable character. We can see how influenced and self-conscious she is around the other woman.
    In comparison to that, I thought the women in “Made in LA” were incredibly powerful. They stood up for themselves and their rights and did not seem to be intimidated by others because of their occupations.

  3. The fashion industry exploits women in many ways other than in the labor aspect of the industry. Women are expected to feel empowered and independent because they have the freedom to express themselves in their clothing and style, but sometimes the opposite happens. Because of the skinny, long haired, attractive models that stores pick to wear their clothes, women who do not meet up to these standards will feel inferior. The clips you chose from Real Women Have Curves emphasize this fact. Because America Ferrera is not model thin or as attractive as the models, she is expected to not be allowed to wear the clothes. She is called fat even by her own mother, and when she comments that she likes one of the dresses, her mother says she will never be able to wear it because she is overweight.

    I think a lot of the reasoning behind minorities being hired to work in garment shops is because they lack the ability to find other jobs that will accept illegal immigrants. Even though the movie Made in LA showed the fact that they have the ability to still have the same working conditions as citizens of the country, a lot of these immigrants are not informed. Also, the language barrier could add to their lack of knowledge about their rights.

    The clips from Real Women Have Curves and Made in LA show that some of the women can feel even less empowered because of the way they are treated. For example, Estella in Real Women Have Curves is timid and can not stand up for herself in front of her boss. Some of the characters in Made in LA gave up hope after their protests didn’t have success at first. Both movies show just how horrible working conditions can be for garment workers and push for a change to empower their female and male workers.

  4. I too immediately thought of the movie Real Women Have Curves, when we first watched Made in L.A. It was my first introduction to the idea of a sweatshop making the clothes I buy and covet everyday, right in America. As we slightly covered in class there must be a strong balancing act between a decent living wage for garment workers in the United States and keeping the labor at a low enough base line that the top manufactures and distributors will want to keep the work in the states and not outsource to places where people are more desperate for any type of work. This is definitely not good, but it is the nature of capitalism. After watching Made in L.A., I discussed with a couple of my friends the merits of shopping at Forever 21 anymore (we are all quite frequent visitors). And we came to the conclusion that unfortunately it’s hard to shop at any store today that doesn’t use some level of worker exploitation at some level. Those that don’t are more likely to cost more and out of the budget of most Americans. Of course I’m not endorsing sweatshops, but it would be hard to maintain the standards of mass fashion development without large garment production facilities.
    Fashion exploits everyone involved. From the models who work ridiculous hours and expected to be “perfect”, to designers whose ideas are stolen, to the garment worker who gets paid 8 cents for a shirt that is retailed at $13.50, to the consumer who is constantly expected to keep up with new trends, and buy more and more to satisfy the society around them. No one is safe.

    • The fashion industry exploits and disempowers women in more aspects that simply the ones revolving around clothing production. As mentioned in previous posts, the fashion industry has come to stand for something that all women should but unfortunately cannot live up to. In today’s fashion industry skinnyness is glorified. A women should be tall, sleek and slender. If one does not fit the so called “norm,” then they are almost seen as an outsider. Designer clothing comes in small sizes with very few if any larger or plus sizes available. The ironic thing about it is that most women are not that size, but larger. Women are supposed to be into fashion and are taught to consume new fashions and are judged on their fashion sense. Well, what does one do when there is not a size that will fit. Larger women are left to filter through clothing racks of plain outfits. And what does this say about our society? Are small skinny women the ones we should look up to? Are they the ideal size? Instead of empowering women and letting them know they are naturally beautiful, the fashion industry strips them of that confidence by forcing these ridiculous standards down their throats.

      As far as the racialization found within the fashion industry, it really does not come as a surprise that minorities are the ones that comprise most of the sweatshop labor. Many have immigrated from their home countries to find better opportunities but also lack the skills required to get a better job. Language can be a huge barrier in advancement. Even if these workers wanted to move on to bigger better things, they are often too intimidated by their bosses to do anything about it. This largely is because the wages they make at their current job go to support their family. If they were to risk leaving their job to find another, that lack of income becomes a barrier.

      I agree with Leslie that in “Real Women Have Curves” the garment workers seemed to feel that the jobs they held were the ones they should have. That was the work these women were supposed to do. In contrast, the women in “Made in LA” were sick of the poor working conditions and decided to take a stand for themselves. I feel in the former, the women were older and had been working in the shop for awhile and perhaps had come to accept the fact that this was what they did for a living and there was nothing to change about it. Or perhaps, they realized the importance and role having the garment job played in their lives and did not want to risk losing the work. This is seen when the elder sister goes to talk to Ms. Glas about getting an advancement. When told she needs an appointment to talk to Ms. Glas the sister just says okay and walks away without offering up a fight. She is afraid to speak out for fear of losing work for her shop.

      It is also possible that the women in “Real Women Have Curves” do not have the access to a labor rights office to report their working conditions. The workers in “Made in LA” joined forces and with the help of an organization took a stand for themselves. Without outside help, the voice of the garment workers are unheard and very few are willing to take a risk that could result in punishment or worse the loss of their job.

  5. “Made in LA” was a real eye-opening film. For some reason, I always think of sweatshops of only existing in foreign countries like China. So when I saw this film, I was disturbed of people working in such conditions, but was not entirely surprised. I don’t think about the hands that make my clothing and I highly doubt that anyone who shops at Forever 21 think about these things when they’re buying their cardigans. Exploitation exists in every industry in one form or the other. The physical workforce of those who make the clothing are obviously being exploited in the terms of their wages. Models are being exploited of their looks. I’m sure this pattern of exploitation trickles down every level of the fashion industry.
    I don’t really think that it’s due to racialization that exploitation exists in this business. I think it’s just because of the unfortunate terms of their existence in this country. The majority, if not all, the women and men who work in these sweatshops are immigrants who can’t get better paying jobs due to their background and lack of experience. They have no choice but to work for the conditions that they’re given. It’s a take it or leave it offer. And unfortunately they have no choice but to take. The way they see it, it’s better to get something rather than nothing.

  6. Women are exploited many ways in the fashion industry. One of the main ways is through working in sweatshops and another way is that women are expected to be perfect and for nothing to be less than perfect. I think women are under a lot of pressure to make it seem as close to “perfect” as possible.
    I think that one of the main reasons that most of the sweatshop workers are minorities are because they are immigrants. Since they are immigrant workers, they are less likely to complain and speak their mind because of fear. I don’t think it’s right that they are scared to speak up because of fear of their deportation or losing their family. In some cases their children are born in the U.S and if they were to get deported, they would be sent to their country while their children are still in the U.S. This is a bad situation to put not only the sweatshop workers in, but like you said in the post, to put the family in the situation as well. From the Real Women Have Curves clips and the Made in LA movie, the similarity that popped out to me right away was that they both include Hispanic women. I think that when people think of sweatshops the first thing that comes to their mind are people of Chinese and Hispanic descent. The Clips from the movie don’t really show the bad conditions or how bad it really is. I feel that since Made in LA is a documentary it shows more emotion and how hard workers they really are.
    In the first Real Women Have Curves clip, it made me think of how sad and ridiculous it seems that they made an outfit and sold it for $18, but at the store it was sold for $600. The people who work behind the scenes in the fashion industry, and the people who actually make the clothing are not given any credit for all the work that they actually do. Not only do the people in the U.S sweatshop work hard, but the people in other countries probably have it worse.

  7. One of the biggest ways fashion I think dis-empowers women is by presenting a prototypical type of woman that is supposed to be the ideal woman. I think even with ads and fashion campaigns that go against that prototype still dis-empowers women in a sense because of the way that the campaigns are presented. Other ways of fashion exploitation on women in the U.S. I feel is the type of clothing that is available to people who are under 18. A lot of clothing that is targeted towards teenagers are often times risqué as opposed to clothing that is made for women of an older generation. It’s almost as if there is a message being sent out, the younger you are take it of, the older you are, put it back on.

    I definitely believe that the reason most sweatshop workers are minorities has a lot to do with race relations, however I think it has more to do with immigration and poor communication skills on the workers behalf. However a living still has to be made, so that when people take the jobs that are available to them.

    Comparing and contrasting Real Women Have Curves and Made in L.A. Real Women Have Curves touched on the feelings that sweatshop workers have. Like the women in Made in L.A. the women in Real Women Have Curves complained about long hours, hard work and little pay, however the movie Real women Have Curves more so focused on women and body image issues vs labor union and pay wage issues.

  8. I believe the most prominent form of exploitation (which I consider to parallel or trail slightly behind labor exploitation) is the sexual exploitation. One cannot open a magazine anymore without a woman being half naked and, often times obviously naked yet covered with a few strategic body positions. The overly sexualized women, in women’s catalogues none the less, tends to tell society women are good for two things: consuming commodities and embodying a sex object. I was curious as to how this effected our culture as a whole and found an interested observation/fact: “After being exposed to sexually explicit advertisements, both men and women showed greater gender role stereotyping, rape myth acceptance, and acceptance of sexual aggression against women” -Research Study (Mcay and Covell, 1997) Sex Roles: A Journal of Research. Assuming this study is based on a lot of research, women do not have a powerful presence in society. If an attractive woman wears a suit jacket and skirt to work, she is most likely to be pegged as “too sexy” because of a past “sexy business woman trend”. (This is a link to a BeBe ad in which I am referring: ). The continuation of these ads makes it difficult for a woman to make a “smart” rather than a “sexy” presence in the world.
    The “racialization of fashion” highly contributes to the majority of sweatshop workers being minorities. Strong examples from Real Women have Curves film clips. One scene that has stuck with me is when America Ferrara’s character and the “general” of the sweatshop ask for advancement on payment to pay their bills. The woman who pays them replies after denying the advancement “I went out on a limb to hire you in the first place…because I believe a woman like me should help one like you…” I feel this verbal exchange does not stray too far from the actual views CEO’s or other business leaders possess about garment workers. The business leaders set up a dichotomy between them and the garment workers. This dichotomy then constructs a seemingly impossible opportunity to become part of the “fashion-wearing” world, because business leaders have excluded them by low pay and difficult manual labor.
    I also believe that minority ethnicities are kept out of the fashion industry because of the ideas that extracted from the clothes they are making. The companies that employ minority women as seamstresses heavily imply that they cannot afford the clothing. Referring back to Real Women have Curves, Carmen’s mother comments on her size- indicating Carmen will never wear an elegant and expensive dress because she is too “enormous”. The women in both films are portrayed to be extremely timid. Though their working conditions are essentially illegal, they do not speak up. However, I can see how these garment workers would be nervous to raise problems. Society has placed these women solely in the garment industry. If they were to be fired from their garment job, a certain anxiety must exist because garment-making is all they know. I thoroughly enjoyed Made in L.A. The strength X had to campaign against the working conditions Forever 21 provided moved me. Even though I am basically a broke college student, I try at all costs to avoid Forever 21- my own personal boycott after seeing this film.

  9. Made in L.A. was very disturbing for me to watch. I always knew about sweatshops but honestly never thought about them being in places like L.A. and New York. I just always imagined third world countries where people could be exploited for little or no money. Seeing the women and their families struggling and putting up with these conditions was heartbreaking. The fashion industry is so focused on producing the most items and new shipments that these big companies lose sensitivity to their working individuals. I was extremely shocked to know that Forever 21 was one of the main sweatshop providers. As consumers we never think twice about the people who actually make the clothes we wear on a daily basis. Fashion industries take advantage of immigrants because they know that most of the time they are vulnerable and willing to work hard, under sad conditions just to start a new life with their families in America.

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