Beyond Upgrading: Gendered Labor and the Restructuring of Firms in the Dominican Republic



In the literature on global commodity chains, industrial upgrading describes the process whereby firms shift to more secure or more profitable niches within or between industries through organizational learning facilitated by networks. While the framework of upgrading identifies key dynamics of competition between capitals, it nonetheless sidelines inquiry into how such imperatives condition and are conditioned by labor. To address this conceptual weakness, I argue that studies of the restructuring of production networks can be enriched through a feminist analysis of value. In particular, the efforts of firms to reposition themselves in networks should be considered in light of struggles to rework the basis of labor's value to capital, a process of reproducing and recombining interlocking social differences into novel combinations of exploitable workers. I explore this process through an in-depth case study of a large garment firm in the Dominican Republic, in which upgrading involved the reworking of skilled and unskilled work, animated by gendered practices and norms, that led to the masculinization of skilled sewing and the feminization of new service engineering functions.