The garment industry is one of the oldest and largest export industries, and it exemplifies the growth in global manufacturing. Most nations produce for the international textile market, making this among the most global of all industries (Dickerson 1995 ). Often a starting point for countries looking to move into export-oriented industrialization, it played a lead role in East Asia’s early export growth. And in many countries, the garment sector is the largest employer in manufacturing.
For garment or textile workers, the industry examplifies the challenges associated with global manufacturing: low wages, "flexible" contracts and sweatshop conditions. Add to these the isolation, invisibility and lack of power experienced by informal workers, especially those who produce from their homes.
Globalization today means that economic activity is not only international in scope but also global in organization. With production dispersed geographically to a great many locations across and within countries, the garment sector is emblematic of the global manufacturing system (Gereffi 1994 ; 1999 ). The relative ease of setting up apparel firms, coupled with the prevalence of developed country protectionism in this sector, has led to the unparalleled worldwide dispersal of production and exporting in this sector.
In developed countries, this system is associated with outsourcing as production shifts to developing countries. Within developing countries, re-sourcing takes place as production moves within and between countries in search of cheaper/faster labour. One notable shift has been to China, which has become the “world’s factory” in many sectors, including garments. Another shift, to meet “just-in-time” delivery orders, especially for the high-end fashion industry, has been to the periphery of Europe (Albania, Morocco, Turkey) and the USA’s neighbours (Mexico and Central America).
Buyer-driven Commodity Chains
The garment sector is not just typical of global manufacturing but in particular of buyer-driven global production chains. Global production and trade are controlled by relatively few core corporations: both transnational manufacturing companies and, especially in the garment sector, foreign buyers (large retailers and branded merchandisers). In buyer-driven commodity chains, large retailers, marketers, and branded manufacturers set up decentralized production networks in a variety of exporting countries, typically in the developing world. The retailers or marketers order the goods and supply all the specifications. Tiered networks of contractors produce the finished products for foreign buyers. (This pattern of industrialization has also become common for other labour-intensive consumer goods such as footwear, toys, handicrafts, and consumer electronics).
The buyer-driven system of production is fueled, in large part, by new information technologies that allow transnational manufacturing companies to send product design and specifications around the world with just a click. New technologies also make it possible for retailers and branded merchandisers to track their inventories using bar codes and place orders using computer graphics and email. This has led to “just-in-time” delivery requirements.
Fundamental changes in the structure of the retail industry have also fueled changes in the garment industry – notably, the rise of giant discounters (low price, high volume) such as Walmart. With their increased size and power, and having streamlined their operations to minimize inventory, the big retailers can place even greater demands on manufacturers to lower their costs and to produce and ship goods quickly (Bonacich 2000 ).
Within the general picture, there are important differences between workers depending on whether they are hired by large factories as core or contract workers, hired by small units, or work under sub-contracts from their homes. There are also self-employed garment makers who work for local customers or markets. For details on the different categories of garment workers, see:
While some garment and textile workers are employed in factories or workshops, a large proportion are “homeworkers” — subcontracted workers who carry out paid work for firms/businesses or their intermediaries, typically on a piece-rate basis, within their own homes (Carr, Chen and Tate 2000 ). The ready-made garment and cloth-related industry is the most common home-based industry in the world (Laungaramsri 2005 ). Estimates suggest that as much as 60 per cent of garment production, especially of children and women’s clothing, is done at home in both Asia and Latin America (Chen, Sebstad, and O'Connell 1999 ). Women represent a significant majority of the homeworkers who cut and stitch garments together for the global apparel trade. The International Labour Office (ILO) grouped homeworkers into three categories (ILO 2000 as cited in McCormick and Schmitz 2001 ):
In recent years, globalization of production has blurred the lines between these different categories of homeworkers.
In many countries, the garment industry is the largest sector employer in manufacturing. However, because a significant proportion of workers in garment and textile industries work in the informal sector, and in particular as home-based workers, they tend to be invisible. They are rarely represented in national statistics (Chen, Sebstad, and O'Connell 1999 ).
In Thailand, the combined textile and garment industries made up the second largest export commodity group in 1999, with over US $5.2 billion in exports. About one million workers were employed in the combined industries as factory workers – about 20 per cent in textile production and 80 per cent in garments. However, the figure does not include homeworkers (Lund & Nicholson 2003 ). Thailand’s Office of Homeworker Protection (OHWP), Ministry of Labor and Welfare, estimated in 2005 there were over 950,000 homeworkers, of whom over three quarters (76%) were female.
According to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) Bulletin, the garment industry is the principal export earner for that country. In the late 1990s, it employed an estimated 350,000 workers in formal and semi-formal employment, making it the fourth largest employing sector (Bajaj 1999: 19 ). Estimates indicate women account for between 80-90 per cent of those workers. Although there are no estimates on the number of home-based garment workers, the Bangladesh Home Workers Association (BHWA) believes there are millions of home-based garment workers, as entire rural families are involved in traditional embroidery work (Bajaj 1999: 19 ).
In the late 1990s, about 55,000 people worked in the textile and garment industry in Ahmedabad, India – a city with a long tradition as a textile centre. More than half (55%) were home-based workers, while 16 per cent worked in large and small factories that employed mainly women, and smaller workshops that employed mainly men. Only a small proportion were buyers, factory/workshop owners, contractors, suppliers or designers.
Garment workers around the world, especially those who do the basic stitching of children’s and women’s garments, are predominantly women. The vast majority of homeworkers are women. Often, garment production at home is one of the few options available to
poor women with little education or training, and can be done while a
woman also cares for her children and carries out her other domestic
The following statistics were reported in Chen, Sebstad and O’Connell (1999) :
While the garment sector typically employs more women than men, it is important to nuance this stylized picture. First, some of the higher-skilled tasks within the sector, such as cutting, are often done by men. Often, so is the stitching of men’s clothing. In a few countries, large numbers of men are engaged in making children’s and women’s clothing: this is particularly true where the technologies used in the industry have been upgraded.
As competition has increased in the industry, companies have diversified into different types of products that are more profitable. These often require higher technical skills to produce. Where this has happened, women have been squeezed out of garment manufacture by men who have more opportunity to learn the new skills needed (Carr et al. 2000 ). For example, in Malaysia, the proportion of women employed in export processing zones dropped from 75 per cent in 1980 to 54 per cent in 1990.
Secondly, export factories tend to hire young women before they are married or become pregnant, and let them go once they are. Thirdly, it is important to note that many garment factory workers are immigrants or migrants; while once migration was commonly from rural to urban centres, these workers now cross borders in search of employment.
The changing nature of global trade and investment has dramatically impacted employment around the world. However, little attention has been paid to the impact of globalization and trade liberalization on women in the informal sector, their earnings and the conditions in which they work (Carr et al. 2000 ).
The transnational companies that dominate much of today’s apparel industry can move their capital across borders in search of cheaper labour and more lucrative investments. Small enterprises and individual workers do not have this mobility, and must compete for increasingly insecure work. Add to this the modern structure of production and distribution, which has created “the global assembly line” (Carr et al. 2000 ). In the garment industry, power has shifted from producers to traders and retailers. This trend is most pronounced in global value chains, where buyers set the terms for what is to be produced, by whom, where, when, and at what price (McCormick and Schmitz 2001 ).
Garment production in poorer countries does provide needed investment and employment, but this is mitigated by the competitive requirement “for poorer countries to offer the cheapest workers and the most flexible (unregulated) conditions” (Delahanty 1999: 4 ). In Thailand, for example, there has been a marked increase in subcontracting and a concurrent increase in homework. This is part of the strategy of lead firms to cut costs through the casualization of labour and outsourcing (Laungaramsri 2005 ).
Tariffs and Trade
The international quota system known as the Multi-Fibre Arrangement (MFA) regulated trade in textiles and garments from 1974 through 2004, imposing quotas on the amount of garments developing countries could export to developed countries. During the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which ran September 1986 to April 1994, it was decided to bring textile trade under the jurisdiction of the World Trade Organization (WTO). A resulting Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC) provided for the gradual dismantling of the quotas that existed under the MFA. The phasing-out process was completed by January 2005.
Trade in textile and clothing products is now governed by the general rules and disciplines embodied in the multilateral trading system. Under the WTO/GATT regime, large tariffs remain in place on many textile and garment products. The change in quotas has impacted the dynamics of the garment industry in many countries, adding a new element of volatility and uncertainty in an already very complex industry.
Contracting in the garment sector relies on so-called “flexible” production. Manufacturers must underbid each other for orders from the large retailers, who are in a position to demand low-cost production and just-in-time delivery and who, aided by bar-code technology, have adopted “lean retailing” to keep inventory – and its inherent risks – as low as possible (McCormick & Schmitz 2001 ).
The manufacturers, in turn, reduce risk by giving work orders to their suppliers or contractors only when they need them, and by moving work around in search of the best deal (Bonacich 2000 ). Suppliers and contractors underbid each other to get work orders from the manufacturers, then contract out work to their sub-contractors when they need them – and so on down the global production chain.
As a result, the location of work, the volume and duration of work orders, and length and terms of employment contracts are all “flexible.” The workers who produce garments on this “global assembly line” tend to be recruited under “flexible” contracts: hired during seasons of peak demand and production, and laid off when demand and production slackens.
Starting in 2008, WIEGO engaged in a pilot project with a High Street retailer of fast fashion to analyze the impact of purchasing practices on working conditions in one factory in Turkey. The project involved an analysis of purchasing practices along the supply chain. It found evidence that the fashion and garment industry’s structures drive poor working conditions and cause an increasing informalization of labour. See Global Trade Project: Analysis of Purchasing Practices in the Garment Industry .
In addition to being hired only when work is available – as a contingent or peripheral workforce – those who stitch garments typically work under sweatshop conditions. Most homeworkers in the garment and textile industry are paid by the piece (according to how many items they produce), earn very little, and do not receive overtime pay. They often have no sick leave or paid vacations.
The garment industry’s informal labour force is predominantly female. Within the informal economy, the gender wage gap is even greater than it is in the formal economy (Carr et al. 2000 ). For more information, see Informality, Poverty & Gender: Summary of WIEGO Findings. 
Laungaramsri reports that in Thailand, wages in homework are sometimes lower than the legislated minimum daily wage. Thailand’s National Office of Statistics (2002) reported that almost 41 per cent of homeworkers earned less than the legislated minimum wage. As well, homeworker’s wages have not increased to keep pace with rising costs of living. A HomeNet Thailand study in 2002 found that during the economic crisis in the late 1990s, which exacerbated declines in the garment industry in many Asian countries, piece-rate wages and job orders dropped dramatically and payments were delayed while costs rose. Delayed payments occurred while other members of the homeworkers’ household were experiencing unemployment and underemployment. Many urban homeworkers took up work in informal vending or as casual labourers to augment their income, while others worked longer hours at homework.
In Ahmedabad, India in the late 1990s, sub-contracted garment makers paid by the piece earned, typically, 2-5 per cent of a garment’s selling price; in contrast, owners and contractors could make up to 40 per cent of the price of a garment (Singh & Bhattacharya 1996 ; ILO 1991 as cited in Chen 2006 ). For most home-based workers, this amounted to less than one US dollar a day, out of which they had to pay for their supplies (e.g. thread, needles, sewing machine maintenance and electricity, as well as travel expenses). Factory workers reported a monthly income perhaps two to four times as much (Chen 2006 ).
Globally, a fiercely competitive marketplace where firms seek out the lowest labour costs has resulted in less-expensive clothing for consumers, and lower earnings for producers (Carr et al. 2000 ). To remain competitive, clothing companies must locate their production networks where costs are lowest. In addition to low wages, this can result in sudden closures and loss of income for women workers when a company moves elsewhere.
A study conducted by the Worker Rights Consortium between 2001-2011 across 15 countries found garment workers' wages have declined overall. Read more .
In addition to low piece rates, homeworkers often are not paid – sometimes for months. Further, homeworkers have to cover many of the costs of production, including: workplace, equipment, and utilities. In sum, those who bear the heaviest share of the burden of the downloading of risks and costs associated with global production are those at the bottom of the production chain: the sub-contracted workers who work from their home. There is arguably no greater gap in economic wealth and bargaining power than between the garment homeworker and the owner of the large garment manufacturing or retail firm for which she produces.
The piece rate workers are basically confined to their homes and have limited contact with the outside world and little access to the market. Proprietors or their agents (sometimes older, somewhat better off women, sometimes men known to the family) contact them for making items as per specifications. Designs and materials are provided while the needles and frame are the workers’ own. The finished pieces (cushion covers, tablecloths, kurta sleeves and front panels, sarees and duppattas) are collected by the agent and payment made on a monthly basis. The losses for poor quality or rejected samples are borne by the worker. Irregularity and delay in payments are frequent complaints by the workers but they are unable to protest for fear of reprisal in the form of with holding of future work. Attempts by workers to directly sell their product to shops have not worked because of inability to invest in raw materials, refusal of shopkeepers to deal directly with workers and the fact that shopkeepers take goods on advance and their payments are even more delayed than those made by agents. Among women surveyed in the 1997 survey, 62 per cent believed they were being under paid by their agents but expressed helplessness in tackling this (Bajaj 1999: 20 ).
Working hours are usually long, irregular and driven by the market (Laungaramsri 2005 ). The pressures of seasonal variation in clothing lines and the need to adapt to consumer likes and dislikes (i.e. what is selling) have created a heavy reliance on “just-in-time” production that puts additional pressure on garment workers, who often must put in long hours to meet expanded demands.
In Thailand, a 2005 National Office of Statistics survey found homeworkers throughout the country worked, on average 7.7 hours a day, with Bangkok homeworkers working the longest day at an average of 10 hours. During peak seasons, however, the workday could extend to between 10 and 20 hours (Sudsanha et al., cited in Laungaramsri 2005 ). Reductions in work that lessen income are also a concern. In the slower seasons, garment makers may work far fewer hours. For example in Ahmedabad during the off-season, 80 per cent of home-based workers worked fewer than 20 days per month (Unni and Bali 2001  as cited in Chen 2006 ).
Invisibility and Lack of Oversight
Global value-chain analyses often shed little light on the working conditions of garment and textile workers. The major chains and retailers can be unaware of how many homeworkers are actually involved in fulfilling their orders, or may turn a blind eye to the working conditions of this segment of their workforce (Carr et al. 2000 ). As well, subcontractors who supply to large firms often conceal who works for them. By hiring homeworkers to do the labour-intensive work of assembling garments and paying them by the piece, these subcontractors keep their wage costs and overhead low, and minimize the risk of loss associated with uncertain orders (Carr et al. 2000 ).
Occupational Health and Safety
Homeworkers rarely have appropriate protective equipment and may be unaware of safety measures. Health risks in the garment industry include repetitive strain, dust from cloth pieces and, in the case of some dyes, exposure to poisonous chemicals (Laungaramsri 2005 ). Family members can be equally at risk of exposure.
To date, few policy-makers have explicitly addressed the opportunities and constraints faced by home-based workers in the context of global integration and competition. In large part, this is because home-based workers remain undercounted in official statistics and poorly understood in development circles.
Carr et al. 2000
Few countries in the world have enacted legislation that deals directly with homework. An exception is Austria where legislation has regulated working and supplying conditions for homework since 1960. In 1993, amendments added benefits such as severance pay, family care, and holiday pay to the legislation (McCormick & Schmitz 2001 ).
ILO Convention No. 177
Internationally, an important milestone in the development of policies for all home-based workers was the adoption in 1996 of ILO Convention No. 177 , which mandates that all homeworkers should have basic labour rights. C177 on Homework recognizes homeworkers as workers who are entitled to just reward for their labour and sets a standard for their minimum pay and working conditions, including occupational health and safety. Among other recommendations, the Convention calls for improved statistics on homework. The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), an international alliance of home-based workers (called HomeNet), WIEGO and other labour activists lobbied for this convention.
Very few countries have ratified the convention: see the ongoing list here . In Europe, where homeworkers are making clothing throughout the countries of Eastern/Central Europe as well as in Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands, the European Commission adopted a recommendation calling on all European Union governments to ratify the convention in 1998 (McCormick & Schmitz 2001 ). After ratification, each country is responsible for developing and reporting on a national implementation plan to ensure its laws meet the convention's requirements. Even without ratifying the convention, countries can put in place national policies or specific schemes that reflect some provisions of C177.
In October 2000, at a South Asian regional conference jointly organized by UNIFEM and WIEGO, representatives of home-based worker organizations, government officials, and researchers from five South Asian countries met and formulated the Kathmandu Declaration for the rights of South Asian home-based workers. The Kathmandu Declaration recommended that all countries in South Asia formulate national policies and plans of action for home-based workers in consultation with organizations of home-based workers. The Kathmandu Declaration also recommended that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) address the issues of home-based workers in the region and take measures to enable them to deal with the risks and opportunities of globalization.
In the Philippines, for example, the specific rights of homeworkers have been recognized since 1992. However, the existence of progressive labour laws does not guarantee their enforcement, as the passage below shows:
An interview with a manager in a relatively low profile firm in the Philippines that makes both garments and textiles (in different divisions) offered an interesting perspective on law enforcement.
To cut costs, workers are often required to put in extremely long work hours at low pay (for example, five drivers must do the job that normally would take 10 drivers, and they have to work 12, 18 or, on occasion, up to 20 hours straight if necessary to get the job done). This also applies to the young, female garment workers (as well as the male managers and others). It is possible to demand this amount of overtime because, in a situation of widespread poverty and a very thin job market, there are always others who are willing to do this type of work if someone refuses to do so.
Garment workers and other employees in these factories are not unionized, and they do not receive minimum pay. They have no benefits (the manager says that they have too little income to want to contribute to social security). Moreover, to avoid labor laws, workers are hired for five months, are laid off for two weeks (they actually work, but the books reflect that they have been [laid] off), and are then rehired for five more months.
Lund & Nicholson  2003: 69
In Thailand, the Labor Protection Act 1999 does not recognize the category “homeworker”1 but homeworkers are covered by the social security system through the Social Security Act 1990 (Amendments 1994 and 1999), which recognizes the right to workers under a lump sum labor contract where the workers are provided with the tools, equipment or means of production (Laungaramsri 2005 ). The employer under the labor contract is required to pay contributions to the Social Security Fund and to abide by the Social Security Act. Once members of the fund, employees can extend their membership by putting in two portions of the contribution, a percentage of the monthly salary. In return, they gain benefits for sickness, maternity, disabilities, death, dependent child, and old age. The Act also allows independent and self-employed workers to apply for membership of the Social Security Fund, make monthly contributions and receive maternity, disabilities, and death benefits. Homeworkers are also covered by a universal health insurance through a public health plan initiated in 2001 that extended coverage to everyone not protected by governmental system of social security (Laungaramsri 2005 ).
A Labor Force Survey in Thailand also underlined the discrepancy between law and enforcement. It found far fewer than half of all workers in small- and medium-sized enterprises said they were protected by labour laws though they all were supposed to be. In large enterprises, close to 100 per cent of workers reported being covered but evidence suggested some workers reported compliance with laws that were not being followed (Lund & Nicholson 2003 ).
Some apparel retailers have voluntarily adopted ethical practices that
improve conditions for their workers. This can have a positive effect
on the business as well. Read How Voluntary Codes of Conduct can Improve the Situation of Informal Workers .
Garment workers, especially those home-based workers who engage in the lower skilled work of ready-made garment production, have little if any bargaining power. Their isolation from one another means they have only their one voice. They may deal only through an intermediary and have no contact with the main contractor, and the intermediary may also have little power. As well, a lack of education places many homeworkers at an immediate disadvantage. Finally, where homework is illegal, its participants are even more vulnerable (McCormick & Schmitz 2001 ).
The lack of bargaining power is compounded in areas with high unemployment, where someone else who needs work can always be hired. And when the contracts are for multinational rather than local firms, there is the ever-present threat that work can simply be shifted to a more compliant, cost-effective workforce in another country.
Most garment workers are not organized. Given the competitive pressures down the whole system, manufacturers prefer their suppliers to be anti-union. In export processing zones, garment factories typically do not allow unionization. There is evidence to suggest that when the financial crisis struck in the late 1990s, union leaders were among the first to be let go in East Asia’s garment industry (Delahanty 1999 ).
Garment makers need to organize to increase their bargaining power and with it, their security in this globalized trade (Carr et al. 2000 ). Worldwide, there are examples of how organizing is improving the situation for these workers. Despite the challenges in organizing home-based workers, there are a growing number of organizations as well as national and regional networks of such organizations (called HomeNets). Some are trade unions, others are cooperatives, and others are associations of various kinds.
The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India is the oldest and largest trade union of women in the informal sector. As of 2006, SEWA had a total membership of 1.3 million women in nine states of India, out of which around one fifth are home-based workers. Garment workers have long been a significant part of SEWA’s union. At the end of 2004, home-based garment workers accounted for 4 per cent of the SEWA’s total membership, and 23 per cent of the home-based workers among its membership. SEWA has worked to organize garment workers, concentrating on higher piece rates and fairer working conditions. In 1986 SEWA negotiated a minimum wage for garment stitching. Through meetings with the Labour Commissioner and staged rallies, they have helped garment workers demand better wages, working conditions, the provision of identity cards and social protection such as child care and health benefits (Chen 2006 ). Their efforts have, in particular, targetted industrial outworkers, many of whom are Muslim. In addition, SEWA has helped own-account workers compete through training and loans for improved equipment that can help them try to compete in the fast-changing local garment market (Chen 2006 ). This has included loans for improving sewing machines, training at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), and installing electricity in the homes of SEWA members (Inclusive Cities n.d. ).
In Thailand, a few home-based industries such as community handicraft production are organized into registered cooperatives, a legal form of work arrangement that aims to offer more equal profit-sharing and direct contact with end buyers (Laungaramsri 2005 ). Through such cooperatives, home-based garment workers have increased their bargaining power and improved the capacity of profit making and sharing. However, the development of this type of work arrangement remains limited.
For more than a decade, HomeNet Thailand has worked to build a coalition between trade unions and homeworker’s organizations, leading labour organizations to give voice to homeworkers’ issues, particularly those that relate to the rights of contract/subcontracting workers. The Thai Labor Solidarity Working Committee has collaborated with the Sub-committee on Protection of Contract Workers and the Lawyer Council of Thailand in their campaign for labour and human rights, which has expanded to incorporate the protection of contract/subcontract workers as well as migrant workers (Daonoi Srikajorn, cited in Laungaramsri 2005 ). In a 2003 proposal to the Ministry of Labor, organizations called for a policy that would recognize security and protection for contracted/sub-contracted workers similar to those that apply to formal workers. However, homeworkers at the low end of the production chain have not received the same attention, and little concern has been extended to rural workers (Daonoi Srikajorn, cited in Laungaramsri 2005 ).
In Madeira, Portugal, a Union of Embroiderers has successfully advocated with the Portuguese government for a range of social protection measures in support of the embroiderers. In Durban, South Africa, the Self-Employed Women’s Union (SEWU) has also successfully negotiated government support for garment workers.
In Australia, the Textile, Clothing, and Footwear Union (TCFUA) has organized homeworkers. Working with consumer, church, community and student groups, the union organized a public awareness campaign in the 1990s to encourage retailers to sign a code of good practice in their employment of homeworkers. The campaign was strategic in winning an industry-wide, legally-binding agreement covering the terms and conditions of homeworker employment. A special unit within the TCFUA was then established to monitor homework in the garment industry (Carr et al. 2000 ).
In North America, UNITE HERE represents workers who sew and ship clothing and other textile products, as well as those who work at distribution centers.
For information on WIEGO’s work in the garment sector and research done by WIEGO members, see the Global Trade section on Garment Workers .