Anthropology of Work Review
© American Anthropological Association
Edited By: Sarah Lyon (University of Kentucky)
Online ISSN: 1548-1417
Virtual Issue: The Global Apparel Industry
The articles in this virtual issue, culled from over 20 years of Anthropology of Work Review issues, provide us with a lens through which to better understand the workings of the global apparel industry, and perhaps more importantly, the lived reality of its laborers. While the industry is structured by stark inequalities, its local impacts are hardly black and white. Goldin (2012) reveals high rates of labor turnover in Guatemala apparel factories, arguing that it is a form of resistance to oppressive forms of global capitalist production. Lessinger (2002) and Hewamanne and Brow (1999) explore the occupational cultures created by female garment workers in India and Sri Lanka and the autonomy and resistance they foster. Prentice (2008) takes readers deep within a Trinidadian garment factory, describing her own experience of learning to sew and the embodiment of labor discipline this required whereas Lynch’s article (1999) on Sri Lanka’s “juki girls” similarly demonstrates the ways in which employees learn not only a labor process but also how to embody a new, “modern” identity.
Although not all of the articles included in this virtual issue explicitly focus on the apparel industry, they still provide worthwhile insights into the politics of capitalist production. Smart’s (1993)article on rent seeking in a Chinese factory town sheds light on the ways in which local entrepreneurs work to create and extract “rents” in the global economy while Palm (2006) investigates the cultural politics of outsourcing, automation, and the mobility of labor and capital in Indian call centers. Rothstein (2000), drawing on 25 years of fieldwork in a central Mexican village, takes a broader view, exploring the transition from a community built on Fordist modernism to one rooted in the flexible labor processes, transnational flows, differentiation, and individualized consumption that are the hallmarks of global capitalism.
On November 24, 2012 a fire in a Bangladeshi factory killed 112 laborers who earlier that day worked at machines churning out clothing for global retailers including Walmart and Sears. In the wake of this tragedy the retailers stated that they weren’t even aware that Tazreen Fashions was making their clothing, revealing a stark disconnect among global brands, the monitoring systems in place to protect workers and the factories where the goods are actually produced. This disaster raises an important question for Northern consumers: should we care about the lives behind our t-shirts? Clearly the answer is affirmative—we should care and we would care if only we had more information. Anthropology with its focus on qualitative, grounded explorations of daily life around the world helps to fill this knowledge gap.