Review: Women in a Sweatshop World

Against the Current, No. 97, March/April 2002

Mary McGinn

Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Workers in the Global Economy
by Grace Chang
(South End Press, 2000), $40 hardback, $18 paperback.

Sweatshop Warriors:
Immigrant Women Workers Take on the Global Factory
by Miriam Chiang Yoon Louie
(South End Press, 1990), 152 pages, $40 hardback, $18 paperback.

I THOROUGHLY ENJOYED reading in tandem Disposable Domestics by Grace Chang and Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take on the Global Factory by Miriam Chiang Yoon Louie.

Grace Chang provides the context of how immigrant women got to be in the low-wage jobs where they are, and the collusion of the U.S. government, corporations and private employers to keep them there. Miriam Louie provides the voices of the immigrant women themselves and their building of effective workers’ centers. It is a powerful duo.

In Disposable Domestics, Chang writes a compelling and disturbing account of the complicity between the U.S. government, private employers and corporations to control welfare and immigrant policies to the detriment of poor women.

In chapter after chapter, Chang’s gendered analysis presents clear evidence as to how immigrant and poor women are forced into traditional female roles in low-paying jobs: as nannies, maids, caretakers of the elderly, and at the same time, intentionally denied government subsidies.

The account begins with the imposition of structural adjustment policies on developing countries to force them to pay their debt. These belt-tightening measures have serious repercussions for the already poor as their farms are converted to export crops and basic food prices rise (think Argentina), and they are forced to emigrate to the rich countries, particularly the United States.

Once here, immigrant women are denied government subsidies, thereby relegating them to low-wage jobs. The reasoning, according to Chang, is capitalism’s ongoing hunger for a waiting pool of cheap labor, private employers’ desire for “affordable help” in traditional female occupations, and the government’s want of savings for paying out any forms of subsidy.

Chang argues that the media perpetuate the image of immigrant women’s bellies full with babies, eager to suck up subsidies at the expense of American citizens. She refers to books and movies that raise fears of aliens invading, as in Alien Nation. (One has to wonder if author Peter Brimelow ever thought of the title’s compound, alienation.)

These assails are further compounded by ones from environmental groups who claim immigrant women (read: overpopulation) lead to depletion of the environment.

To legislate this racism and misogyny, Chang tells the history of Proposition 187, the California ballot initiative which sought to deny immigrant families the right to attend public school, use U.S. hospitals or receive any monetary benefits.

She reviews how the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) serves as gatekeeper of these types of schemes, giving us the example of their illegal denial of citizenship to immigrant women when they were found to have applied for food stamps for their U.S.-born children!

Privilege on the Back of Misery

Chang then goes a step further and intricately links these reforms with the punitive changes to welfare, forcing poor women into low-paying jobs without the social services necessary to eventually seek other options. Sound familiar?

She proves how the government, private employers and corporations again benefit from this joint arrangement. The INS is cited again, this time raiding work sites for “illegals” to then replace these immigrants with workfare workers, creating divisions among the very people whose interests lie so close together.

This is compounded by the media hyping workfare and immigrant workers as somehow less deserving of fair wages for their work because, after all, their jobs are seen as an opportunity to experience “real” employment, as charity or even as debt repayment to society, which leaves little room for fair wages or just working conditions.

To complete the picture, Chang is fierce in her challenge to other benefactors, including middle and upper class white women who hire these poor women to take care of their children and elderly. She notes how this situation enables the social conservatism of this class, as housekeeping provided by immigrants aids in reducing tension at home over these chores and allows this privileged class to move up the corporate ladder.

She notes how when confronted by living wage campaigns, it is these women who are the first to squawk at the possibility of having to pay higher wages.

Fighting Back

Despite all these obstacles, Chang leaves us some optimism as she highlights union and community-organizations’ efforts to defend and fight for better conditions for immigrant and poor women workers in Canada and the United States, including some promising union contract language inclusive of both workfare and immigrant workers.

This is a book that carries a lot of punch and leaves little doubt of the capitalist class’s configurations for immigrants and the working poor.

This brings us to Miriam Chiang Yoon Louie’s book, Sweatshop Warriors, which goes one step further in describing not only organizations that aid these groups of workers, but the women themselves who initiate and direct their own organizations. Here immigrant women’s voices come to you as intimately and rich as if you were sharing kimchee or enchiladas around a kitchen table.

Immigrant women from Korea, China and Mexico share their histories of migration, from sweatshop conditions in their rural homelands to surprisingly even worse ones here. The women talk about what brought them to start up their workers’ centers, from the crude injustices faced on the job to histories of activism in their homelands.

As Han Hee Jim of Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates (KIWA) in Los Angeles describes, “We are subjected to degrading comments such as `you are only a servant’ and `you, waitress, bitch.’ After seven years of being subjected to these, I stand here today to state that we will not tolerate them anymore.”

The women go on to describe their triple jornada (three shifts) of struggle: on the job, in the community and in the home. Maria Antonia Flores of La Mujer Obrera in El Paso, Texas brought tears to my eyes as she explained:

“I got my liberation after being suppressed for 15 years and limited to the house and home labor. I came out in the world. . . . When you are just sitting there listening to your husband, you think it’s perfectly natural that you have no rights as a woman, as a person. Your rights are violated and you don’t know it. When you go out into the outside world, you find another reality. I think that is what has made me so protective of this organization.”

Quilt of Struggle

Clear to sustaining their activism is their profound vision of organization as community that transcends their on-the-job struggles or their family obligations, to see themselves as warriors of a much larger social movement, battling the very roots of oppression.

Louie’s book is rich in first hand interviews with these immigrant women and you feel the energy she infused in this work. At times the book is a short history lesson of externally-generated financial crises in developing countries and forced emigration; at others an artistic infusion of Korean, Chinese and Mexican expressions and sayings, struggle-inspired songs and poems.

At still other points, the book is a nuts-and-bolts description of what it takes to build strong collectives from the bottom-up. When I finished reading, I felt I was looking at a beautiful patchwork quilt of these women’s voices with clear strong patterns of their common characteristics as immigrant sweatshop workers and the key elements that defined them as sweatshop warriors.

In the mid-eighties and nineties when many of these workers’ centers were blossoming, I had a basic familiarity with their struggles.

I knew the garment shop workers in Oakland protesting against the non-payment of back wages for the fancy evening gowns they had sewn for Jessica McClintock (Asian Immigrant Women’s Advocates, AIWA); Levis workers in Texas demanding retraining after their plant was unceremoniously closed in San Antonio (La Fuerza Unida); Latina women workers organizing protests along the U.S.-Mexico border against NAFTA (La Mujer Obrera, El Paso, Texas).

What I failed to realize was how far their organizations propelled clear beyond these single-issue efforts. On the way, these women were building community-sustaining organizations.

Their achievements are impressive: millions of dollars back wages paid; workers’ rights seminars paid by the employer; negotiated contracts with restaurant owners to establish wages and hours; ties with other community organizations for health insurance and credit; legislative gains including criminal penalties for non-payment of wages (nearly every sweatshop owes one month of back wages!); scholarship funds for workers and their families — and the list goes on to include youth-oriented activities for the children of these warriors.

Challenge to the Unions

All of this begged me to ask the question: What role did the unions play? At one point Louie proclaims: “The ethnic-based workers’ centers reach, organize and defend the immigrant low-waged ethnic minority women workers who are not protected by the trade union movement.”

Throughout the book we read of unions’ sins: not explaining worker compensation rights to workers injured on the job; failing to address issues of importance to workers; having no organizers who speak the language of the workers; refusing to support workers or involve them in decision-making, etc.

While the charges are likely justified, fortunately Louie doesn’t let this become the predominant theme of the book or provide scandalous details (since there’s really no need). Instead, she effectively highlights the women’s successes despite these roadblocks, while challenging the rest of us in unions to sit up and pay attention.

So what made this all possible? According to Louie and the women themselves, key is education that focuses on rank-and-file leadership and political activism and then the opportunities within the organization to exercise these new insights. Linked with that is a vision of centers themselves creating community, inviting participation and providing camaraderie and affection.

As Petra Mata of La Fuerza Unida explains, “This is the best school you could have; working with people, listening, chairing the meetings-all the things you have to understand to carry out the struggle. Here we are not just individuals. We go to support and participate in all struggles in the movement. We work with Asian, Filipino, African American, Mexican, white.”

I’d like to participate in the making of that kind of organization and community. This book is a must read for experienced activists who think we know what we’re doing, both for inspiration and a reminder of who should be leading the movements for social change and how they get to lead it.

It would also be essential for newer activists to understand the roots of the anti-sweatshop movement from the women warriors who took up their spears and led the way.

from ATC 97 (March/April 2002)