Alarge section of the literature analysing the global value chains and global production networks have remained restricted to the analysis of production processes: their organizational structures, nature and character of the variety of governance systems of the value chains as well as the technological arrangements around the same. The literature has often looked at the value chains as a fragmented process of surplus accumulation and thus has limited the analysis to an external boundary, which were unable to transcend such boundaries and integrate with the labour processes within the value chains. The literature around garment value chains also suffered from similar constraints, especially in the context of India, where an analysis of garment industries has remained confined mainly to micro-study based approaches, focused mainly at a particular centre of production or region and attempting to locate it within the larger garment industry in India. These studies have undoubtedly provided invaluable inputs to building a composite understanding of the sector, the processes and organization of production and its impact on the labour processes.
However, such literature, especially in the current decade, marks a glaring lacuna in providing a macro overview and a holistic picture of the garment sector as such. The book under review by Alessandra Mezzadri plugs this gap in the literature not only by presenting the complexities involved in both the production and labour processes within the garment sector in India at a national level, but also goes deeper into the issues of labour exploitation, oppression, unfreedom and bodily depletion faced daily by those who are toiling incessantly for producing these garments that we wear every day.
Mezzadri’s book explains the characteristics of the global production system as a joint enterprise against the labouring poor where the multiple actors—global and local buyers, retailers, domestic exporters and producers, merchants and manufacturers, multiple levels of socially differentiated local intermediaries acting as subcontractors along with the institution of family and the consumers—all engage in the practices of producing and reproducing the sweatshop and thus institutionalize the regime of inequality and working poverty.
The book takes the reader through a wonderful journey across the important garment hubs beginning from Northern and Eastern India into the newly emerged garment producing centres of the South. Mezzadri elucidates on the process of some older centres of production transforming themselves into mainly trading and commercial centres for the sector, such as Mumbai, while others replicating the global assembly lines to reinvent themselves such as in the many Southern centres. The others however use the older production structures and techniques to maintain their uniqueness and thrive on pre-existing organizations of production such as the Northern centres, especially the NCR and surrounding regions and to some extent thrive on product specialization and the lack of innovation to be on the decline, such as in the hubs of Kolkata. To highlight an old yet interesting quote also reproduced in the book, Mezzadri, in her pusuit to trace the garment sector, truly trails the following, ‘Fashion is born in Mumbai, matures in Delhi, ages in Chennai and dies in Kolkata.’
In all these centres, she effectively shows the existence of social differentiation feeding into the organization of production, the product differentiation, the complexities associated with the circulation of labour, all of which not only pre-exist sweatshops but assist in reproducing them in an unending manner.
The author describes in a detailed and scholarly way the changes in the distinct circuits as she moves across the landscapes based on the regional patterns of product specialization, the composition of sweatshops and the social profile of the labouring poor within them. Her narrative involves elucidating mainly three differential strands of the labouring poor within the ‘abode of production’ or more commonly known as sweatshops—class, caste and gender—which act as a key asset for the several actors identified within the production structures to strategically utilize for surplus extraction. A major point underscored in her analysis is about exploiting these existing social differentiations and creating newer differentiations in order to further fragment the sector which in turn facilitates profit maximization as well as creates certain ‘temporarily permanent’ structures for institutionalizing a pervasively unequal garment shop-floor whether in factories, workshops or inside homes.
In the process of her description and theorization of the sweatshops, she mainly builds her arguments based on a Marxian and feminist framework to elucidate on the narrative of the garment workforce in India. Her work draws majorly upon the seminal works of eminent scholars such as Henry Bernstein and Jairas Banaji for explaining the changes in the mode of production and the differentiating classes of labour existing within capitalism on the framework developed by Jan Breman and Barbara Harris-White to explain the caste-based social differentiation and their interrelations with the labouring process in India to explain the processes in the garments industry; and lastly on the works of Maria Mies and Silvia Federici to elucidate on the pre-existing forms of patriarchal stereotypes which facilitate the exploitation and oppression of the female labouring bodies under a capitalist production process.
Using these in the context of India, the author makes a crucial point about the global garment production system based on bondage, unfreedom and perhaps also ‘modern slavery’ through which our clothes are stitched and delivered via complex channels into high-end retail outlets before getting into our wardrobes. This, she argues emphatically, is anything but ‘modernisation’ of the sector under globalized capitalism, as is usually claimed. Mezzadri concludes as follows,
Studying contemporary capitalism through the lens of the sweatshop regime, first warns against facile modernizing narratives. Second, it significantly contributes to debates on ‘modern slavery’. Third, it suggests a number of important lessons for the debate on ethical consumerism and ethical trade interventions.
However, the book stops short from getting into greater depths of the relationship between labour and capital in India as it has evolved post-Independence, based on the collusion of state and the then Indian bourgeoisie, which had a great impact upon the development of industries, including garments in India. The narrative makes passing references to the same, for example, in terms of the transitions witnessed by the control of the sector from merchants to manufacturers and other players, or in keeping garments restricted as labour-intensive SMEs for a long period, which, according to the author, is also responsible for continuing and extending the informal and thus unequal arrangements in most segments of garment production till date. While one agrees with this point, it is also important to connect the contemporary arrangements with the fallacious notions of ‘limited divisibility of capital’ under a regime of globalized and neoliberalized capitalism. This part of the argument though not absent completely appears as marginal to the narrative thus presented. It may very well remain outside the scope of the study but including and building upon it to explain the current subordination of labour would have added extra value to the discourse.
Another important point in the book relates to the presentation of the Northern circuits as more ‘male-dominated’ due to old production structures and product specializations compared to the newly emerged Southern circuits, which include more women in the production process, albeit due to a specific kind of patriarchal stereo-typification of women bodies. While it correctly raises the issues of visibility and invisibility of women’s contribution to the garments industry adequately, the argument could have also been historicized by delving a little into the complex historical patterns of women’s work in India. It has been well documented that women in the North and East have had a much lower work participation rates compared to that of women in the South. A large part of women’s entry into the southern segments of garment production in the current regime also used that historical basis to be able to bring in more women into its fold, where patriarchal restrictions played out differently than in other regions.
Despite the above, Mezzadri’s book with its in-depth analysis is a reflection of her scholarly rigour. The book undoubtedly contributes great value to the discourse of the labour processes in the garment value chains in India and also feeds into the international discourse which hardly gets into such depths of analysing labouring bodies. The discussions provide a fresh look into the ‘sweatshops’ as a complex site of exploitation using a framework which is not too commonly explored. Not only does the book provide detailed explorations of the contemporary issues plaguing labour within the sector, in places the arguments do derive greatly from the history of garment and textile production in India. The book, in my opinion, thus has a long shelf-life and would be invaluable for anyone researching on the garments sector in India in future.
A last point is on the editing of the book which should have been much more meticulous than the current edition displays. Apart from regular errors related to missing information on abbreviations and typographical errors, certain colloquial names of places, forms of craft and even names of institutes have been spelt erroneously throughout the book. These may be corrected in future editions.
Sona Mitra is an economist and independent researcher, currently working as a consultant with UNDP-India.
The book takes the reader through a wonderful journey across the important garment hubs beginning from Northern and Eastern India into the newly emerged garment producing centres of the South.
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