Shirt tales

The journey of a small T-shirt tells a big story


Evert Nieuwenhuis | December 2005 issue

Pietra Rivoli recalls the particularly cold February day in 1999 when she watched some 100 students demonstrating on the campus of her employer, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Globalization was the target of the protest, more specifically The World Bank and multinational corporations. A young woman grabbed the microphone: “Who made your T-shirt?” she asked the crowd. “Was it a child in Vietnam, chained to a sewing machine without food or water? Or a young girl from India earning 18 cents per hour and allowed to visit the bathroom only twice per day? Did you know that she lives 12 to a room? That she shares her bed and has only gruel to eat? That she is forced to work 90 hours each week, without overtime pay? Did you know that she has no right to speak out, no right to unionize? That she lives not only in poverty, but also in filth and sickness, all in the name of Nike’s profits?”

“I did not know this,” Rivoli writes years later. “And I wondered about the young woman at the microphone: How did she know?”

And a book was born. In The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy, Pietra Rivoli, economics professor, describes her efforts to find out where her T-shirt comes from and the conditions under which it was manufactured. For five years she travelled the world, visiting cotton fields in Texas and factories in China (where more than one-third of the world’s clothes are made). And she walked the halls of power in Washington where textile firms lobby for tariffs on imported clothing and major retail chains argue for the opposite: the freest possible trade in cheap T-shirts from low-wage countries. Rivoli winds up her travels through the world economy in poverty-stricken Tanzania, where second-hand textiles are the biggest American import product as well as the most popular clothing.

Rivoli wrote a fascinating book. Her writing style is smooth and accessible, her research solid and thorough. But the biggest strength is the way this book focuses on a small subject to tell a big story.

Rivoli concludes that unbridled capitalism has little effect on the travels of her T-shirt. Politicians and civil servants, not market forces, shape the world economy. Anyone who fulminates against neo-liberal free trade and multinational corporations, like the demonstrating students, is barking up the wrong tree.

The influence of the government starts with cotton cultivation, heavily subsidized in the United States. Supply and demand, commercial risk and foreign competition have a minimal effect on U.S. cotton farmers. That’s all very nice for them, but disastrous for their colleagues from developing countries for whom there are no subsidies and who cannot compete with the cut-rate American prices. This is how Rivoli makes the difference painfully clear: A failed cotton crop in India or Africa means hunger and suffering, while in America it just means another insurance form.

And the often depressing fate of the seamstresses making our T-shirts is less affected by the invisible hand of the market than the heavy hand of government, Rivoli says. The Chinese government’s labour system (hukou) bears a resemblance to apartheid. Most factory workers are migrants from other regions of China kept in a legal no-man’s-land by a surreal system of local residence permits that makes them extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Any protests about wages and working hours is squashed by the threat of a single call to the local residence permit office. So it’s not Nike, but the Chinese government that keeps employees imprisoned in sweatshops, living a life of blood, sweat and tears.

But is a sweatshop really a prison? Rivoli’s broad, historic perspective offers surprising insights. Since the Industrial Revolution, our clothing has nearly always been assembled by the hands of farm girls. This was true in the first textile factories in Manchester, England, as well as their successors in Massachusetts, South Carolina, Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and China.

Despite the horrors of these sweatshops, the farm girls believed these jobs offered better prospects than the hard, dead-end life in the countryside. Rivoli cites numerous yellow-paged diaries and witness accounts from British and American seamstresses as well as their Chinese counterparts who are now working furiously to create next spring’s fashions. Working in the sweatshops means the women can save money, gives them autonomy and a say about who they will marry and when. The emancipation of women begins in the factory. At one time it was in Manchester and Lowell, Massachusetts; now the same is true in Vietnam and China.

Does this mean we should sit back and simply allow the sweatshops to carry on as they always have? Just the opposite, Rivoli says. Indignant activists, involved citizens and conscious consumers have helped make improvements. After many protests, child labour is now banned around the world. A minimum wage is generally accepted in nearly all major textile-producing countries. And it is partly thanks to the movement against sweatshops that multinationals have taken the new step of introducing codes of conduct. Of course abuses remain all too common, and rules such as those on child labour and minimum wage are not always respected. But one look at the past, Rivoli says, makes it clear how much progress has been made.

Rivoli’s book overlooks problems associated with the massive amount of pesticides used in cotton cultivation, which damage the environment as well as farmers’ health. Nor does she mention the horrifying phenomenon of Indian cotton farmers who collectively commit suicide by drinking their pesticides because they can’t make their loan payments (partly for the purchase of those pesticides). Yet Rivoli sketches a rich portrait of the history of the T-shirt on your back.

Her trip around the world has come to an end. Pietra Rivoli is back in Wahsington teaching at Georgetown University. So what would she say if she ran into that young woman so passionate about the cause of textile workers abroad? Rivoli would tell her to have more appreciation for what the sweatshops have meant to women, and to think twice before condemning the factory workers to a life on the farm. She would tell her that the poor (African cotton farmers and Asian textile workers) suffer more from a lack of political participation than the brutality of the market. Fight for political participation, she would say, not economic exclusion. In short, Rivoli writes, “I would tell her to look both ways, but to march on.”

Pietra Rivoli: The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of Trade
John Wiley & Sons, 2005
ISBN 0471648493

Solution News Source

Shirt tales

The journey of a small T-shirt tells a big story


Evert Nieuwenhuis | December 2005 issue

Pietra Rivoli recalls the particularly cold February day in 1999 when she watched some 100 students demonstrating on the campus of her employer, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Globalization was the target of the protest, more specifically The World Bank and multinational corporations. A young woman grabbed the microphone: “Who made your T-shirt?” she asked the crowd. “Was it a child in Vietnam, chained to a sewing machine without food or water? Or a young girl from India earning 18 cents per hour and allowed to visit the bathroom only twice per day? Did you know that she lives 12 to a room? That she shares her bed and has only gruel to eat? That she is forced to work 90 hours each week, without overtime pay? Did you know that she has no right to speak out, no right to unionize? That she lives not only in poverty, but also in filth and sickness, all in the name of Nike’s profits?”

“I did not know this,” Rivoli writes years later. “And I wondered about the young woman at the microphone: How did she know?”

And a book was born. In The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy, Pietra Rivoli, economics professor, describes her efforts to find out where her T-shirt comes from and the conditions under which it was manufactured. For five years she travelled the world, visiting cotton fields in Texas and factories in China (where more than one-third of the world’s clothes are made). And she walked the halls of power in Washington where textile firms lobby for tariffs on imported clothing and major retail chains argue for the opposite: the freest possible trade in cheap T-shirts from low-wage countries. Rivoli winds up her travels through the world economy in poverty-stricken Tanzania, where second-hand textiles are the biggest American import product as well as the most popular clothing.

Rivoli wrote a fascinating book. Her writing style is smooth and accessible, her research solid and thorough. But the biggest strength is the way this book focuses on a small subject to tell a big story.

Rivoli concludes that unbridled capitalism has little effect on the travels of her T-shirt. Politicians and civil servants, not market forces, shape the world economy. Anyone who fulminates against neo-liberal free trade and multinational corporations, like the demonstrating students, is barking up the wrong tree.

The influence of the government starts with cotton cultivation, heavily subsidized in the United States. Supply and demand, commercial risk and foreign competition have a minimal effect on U.S. cotton farmers. That’s all very nice for them, but disastrous for their colleagues from developing countries for whom there are no subsidies and who cannot compete with the cut-rate American prices. This is how Rivoli makes the difference painfully clear: A failed cotton crop in India or Africa means hunger and suffering, while in America it just means another insurance form.

And the often depressing fate of the seamstresses making our T-shirts is less affected by the invisible hand of the market than the heavy hand of government, Rivoli says. The Chinese government’s labour system (hukou) bears a resemblance to apartheid. Most factory workers are migrants from other regions of China kept in a legal no-man’s-land by a surreal system of local residence permits that makes them extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Any protests about wages and working hours is squashed by the threat of a single call to the local residence permit office. So it’s not Nike, but the Chinese government that keeps employees imprisoned in sweatshops, living a life of blood, sweat and tears.

But is a sweatshop really a prison? Rivoli’s broad, historic perspective offers surprising insights. Since the Industrial Revolution, our clothing has nearly always been assembled by the hands of farm girls. This was true in the first textile factories in Manchester, England, as well as their successors in Massachusetts, South Carolina, Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and China.

Despite the horrors of these sweatshops, the farm girls believed these jobs offered better prospects than the hard, dead-end life in the countryside. Rivoli cites numerous yellow-paged diaries and witness accounts from British and American seamstresses as well as their Chinese counterparts who are now working furiously to create next spring’s fashions. Working in the sweatshops means the women can save money, gives them autonomy and a say about who they will marry and when. The emancipation of women begins in the factory. At one time it was in Manchester and Lowell, Massachusetts; now the same is true in Vietnam and China.

Does this mean we should sit back and simply allow the sweatshops to carry on as they always have? Just the opposite, Rivoli says. Indignant activists, involved citizens and conscious consumers have helped make improvements. After many protests, child labour is now banned around the world. A minimum wage is generally accepted in nearly all major textile-producing countries. And it is partly thanks to the movement against sweatshops that multinationals have taken the new step of introducing codes of conduct. Of course abuses remain all too common, and rules such as those on child labour and minimum wage are not always respected. But one look at the past, Rivoli says, makes it clear how much progress has been made.

Rivoli’s book overlooks problems associated with the massive amount of pesticides used in cotton cultivation, which damage the environment as well as farmers’ health. Nor does she mention the horrifying phenomenon of Indian cotton farmers who collectively commit suicide by drinking their pesticides because they can’t make their loan payments (partly for the purchase of those pesticides). Yet Rivoli sketches a rich portrait of the history of the T-shirt on your back.

Her trip around the world has come to an end. Pietra Rivoli is back in Wahsington teaching at Georgetown University. So what would she say if she ran into that young woman so passionate about the cause of textile workers abroad? Rivoli would tell her to have more appreciation for what the sweatshops have meant to women, and to think twice before condemning the factory workers to a life on the farm. She would tell her that the poor (African cotton farmers and Asian textile workers) suffer more from a lack of political participation than the brutality of the market. Fight for political participation, she would say, not economic exclusion. In short, Rivoli writes, “I would tell her to look both ways, but to march on.”

Pietra Rivoli: The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of Trade
John Wiley & Sons, 2005
ISBN 0471648493

Solution News Source

SIGN UP

TO GET A Free DAILY DOSE OF OPTIMISM

Optimist Subscriber
Delivery Frequency *
reCAPTCHA

We respect your privacy and take protecting it seriously. Privacy Policy