Sweatshops and Post-Industrial Society: Conflicting Contemporary Phenomena – The Socjournal

Sweatshops and Post-Industrial Society: Conflicting Contemporary Phenomena

Emily Jill Hodgson

SOCI 460

Athabasca University

June 13, 2010

The shoes on our feet

The results of the Google search on both sweatshops and global sweatshops, as found in the  List of Works Cited, appear to contradict the notion put forth by several of the theorists explored by Webster – Bell (pp. 32-59), Vattimo, and Poster (p. 266). Arguing the transition to a post-industrial society (PIS) dominated by information and information technology (IT), these theorists suggest a decline and eventual elimination of industrial manufacturing. Moreover, this decline of Fordist work argues the eventual establishment, under PIS, of a higher standard of living as the bulk of the population maintains information related work.  Despite the profusion of information age literature in the mass media, as well as the complex and compelling theoretical analyses offered by the aforementioned theorists, this paper will argue, in light of the results of the Google search, coupled with the case study offered by Devinatz (1999), that such claims, if not naively optimistic at the least, remain brutally negligent of the realities of contemporary society and the daily sufferings of millions who work within conditions that are in large part the result of the IT and service dominated society lauded by these theorists.

An examination of the issue of global sweatshops within the context of a contemporary globalized society, following a simple Google search, inarguably reveals two fundamental elements. Firstly, given the existence of thousands of global and domestic sweatshops (Lendman, 2010; Street Cents; Weinberg), the claim that they are an historical relic is false. Secondly, our access to and dissemination of the existence of global and domestic sweatshops is more easily accessed through information technology (IT).  Consequently the very tool lauded by PIS theorists which heralds the dawn of a new age, and in Bell’s terms, a more “caring” (Webster, p. 42)  society becomes the very tool which reveals the illusory nature of that claim.

In order to appreciate the relevance of our Google search as it relates to theorists such as Bell, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of the realities which emerged from that search.  Definitions vary, but essentially the term “sweatshop” , in its least oppressive form, refers to workplaces where employees work for poor pay, receive few or no benefits, work in unsafe, unfavourable, harsh, and/or hazardous environments, and are prevented from organizing for redress (Lendman, 2010; Sweatshops, Vegan Peace; Wikipedia). Moreover, several articles in the Google search results reveal an extensive network of domestic sweatshops (Lendman; Sweatshops, Hearts and Minds). Astoundingly, the US Department of Labour estimates that half or more of the nation’s 22,000 garment factories are sweatshop employers (Lendman), employers who demand 60-80 hour work weeks without offering minimum wage or overtime pay (Sweatshops, Vegan Peace Home). Within our own borders, it would appear that conditions are equally poor as “sweatshops are showing up in increasing numbers in Canada’s urban centers” (Weinberg, para. 1), suggesting not the elimination of manual labour envisioned by PIS theorists as well shall se, but rather a coexistence  manual labour and information related work.

What may distinguish the notion of a domestic sweatshop from that of global sweatshop, following the descriptions offered by the Google search (Canadian Labour Congress; Lendman; Weinberg), reflect differences not of kind, but of degree.  Although both blatantly promote human exploitation, its severity is exacerbated within the context of developing countries, revealing atrocities which our western sentimentality would not permit to occur in our own backyard. Although we will clearly tolerate capitalist exploitation of workers within our borders, (Devinatz,1999; Hearts and Minds; Vegan Peace; Weinberg), this tolerance has limits.  As suggested by the compelling images on the behindthelabel.org website, it would appear that to satisfy our insatiable desire for capitalist expansion and consumerist thirst, we must transfer the most horrific forms of human abuse to those countries where the people are helpless to resist and whose governments, in their own desire for growth, will allow it.  The results of the Google search offer compelling evidence of this irony, as workers are physically forced to work with minimal pay, while often confined, brutally exploited, beaten, and sexually abused (Lendman).

Devinatz’s (1999) description of the “protypical high-tech (electronics) company” (p. Xiv) which is “small, is non-union, pays its workers very low wages and is managed in an authoritarian manner, with the workers being subjected to both harsh and arbitrary discipline” (p. Xiv) is reflective of the descriptions and images offered by several of the results of the Google search  (Children and the Global Sweatshop; Secrets, Lies, and Sweatshops; Weinberg).  Perhaps more importantly, each of the above forcefully challenges the claims of PIS theorists such as Bell, who laud the immanent benefits of the global integration of IT and the shift to PIS. As we shall see, PIS is in part the result of increased productivity during Fordist times.

According to Bell, should increased productivity continue, there are several events of which we are assured:

  • We will see a decline in industrial workers¸ in part due to automation under the more for less ideology
  • There will be indefinite increases in industrial output following the principles of rationalization
  • There will be continued increases in wealth, originating from industrial or manufacturing output, which is then spent on needs and services
  • Continue decline in people employed in industry
  • Perpetual creation of service sector employment which are intended to fulfill the needs creating by the unending wealth generated by infinitely increasing productivity.  (Webster, p. 40)

Interestingly, Bell further argues that the US is leading the entire world towards this new information society. Certainly, Devinatz’s (1999) delineation of the high and low-tech information technologies industries would certainly seem to suggest that this is the case. However, the details of his own exploitation as a worker within that industry combined with the proliferation of manufacturing sweatshops internationally by US based transnational corporations (TNCs) (Canadian Labour Congress; Street Cents) suggest that the US is also the decisive creative force in establishing a new form of secondary work based upon complete, unremitting human exploitation in order to maximize profit.  Perhaps most importantly, the creation of a new PIS, ironically, appears to be heavily dependant upon an exaggerated form of industrial Fordist society, reflecting a heightened international between primary, secondary, and tertiary work, as a portion of the world benefits from PIS while others experienced increased oppression.

Nonetheless, in spite of overwhelmingly contradictory evidence, Bell’s optimism regarding IT and the superiority of PIS is more easily understood following Webster’s convincing identification of Bell’s evolutionist orientation (p. 45, 46).  Such an orientation would inherently argue the superiority of PIS characterized by tertiary work over previous social forms.   This positive social evolution impels Bell to suggest the development of a “caring society” (Webster, p. 42), inherently demonstrating heightened interest in, responsibility towards, and opportunities for all human beings, while simultaneously embracing environmental and ecological concerns.  This new society which Bell claims we are in would embody “a ‘new consciousness in PIS which, as a ‘communal society’ (1973, p. 220), promotes the ‘community rather than the individual’ (p. 128)  as the central reference point” (Webster, p. 42, 43).  The results of the Google search, reinforced by Devinatz’s experience, each revealing horrific atrocities against human beings at the expense of our own consumption needs succinctly undermine claims of social transformation into a society which prioritizes the wellbeing and quality of life for all people and all societies.

In fact, the extent of human exploitation revealed within the scope of the Google search (behindthelabel.org)¸ suggests not social progression, but rather regression, as society is replete with “flagrant workplace violations, core protections most Americans take for granted, including a guaranteed minimum wage, overtime pay, regular meal and other breaks, compensation for on-the-job injuries, and the right to bargain collectively” (Lendman, 2010), while domestic and international sweatshops reveal below minimum wage pay, unpaid overtime, denial of meal and other breaks, illegal pay deductions, illegal employer retaliation against workers demanding their rights or attempting to form a union, physical abuse, enslavement, and rape (Lendman).

Bell’s evolutionist orientation is noticeably juxtaposed against his decidedly “antiholist” (Webster, p. 37) orientation, through which he argues that PIS emerges from changes in the social structure of economy, occupational structure, and the stratification system, while effectively excluding political and cultural norms and structure. Bell attempts to argue that changes in the former three will have no impact, positive or negative, on the latter two. Such a conceptualization, Webster argues, allows Bell to argue the benefits of PIS by way of simply ignoring the latter two, left behind, as it were, in the decrepit remains of Fordist society.

As such within this context, Bell’s social slicing suggests that the international stratification system and pervasive global division of labour made possible only through the development of IT therefore has no effect on the political or cultural landscape of those developing and developed countries now plagued by sweatshop conditions and human atrocities. However, if the development of PIS, IT, and the subsequent expansions of global TNCs has no relevance politically, what justification is there for organizations such as the WTO as a political instrument and a global economic structure which wields tremendous influence and legal power over the political governance of nations.  Likewise, the proliferation of the global information network has raised substantive questions regarding the homogenization of culture, secularization of foreign countries, and the cultural imperialism of the West, clearly undermining Bell’s categorical separation of social structures.

Bell’s anti-holist, evolutionist orientation is again apparent in his discussion and separation of the primary, secondary, and tertiary work sectors, each representing one of the three progressive social forms identified by Bell – agricultural, industrial, and post-industrial.  Although Bell acknowledges the continued existence and necessity of the former two, he insists upon the superiority and prominence of the third. However, the undeniable growth in sweatshops characterized by primary and secondary work (heartsandminds.org; Weinberg) appears to contradict not only the superiority and prevalence of the third, but also succinctly questions notions of sector separateness.  Not only do IT and services depend upon the production of raw materials and goods within the primary and secondary sectors argued by Webster (p. 47), it is fair to suggest that the more favourable working conditions of information and service work can only occur through the oppressive manual labour performed within the primary and secondary sectors represented by contemporary sweatshops.

Interestingly, Bell has also proposed that the type of work most common becomes the defining feature of a society (Webster, p. 47). Criticisms of technological determinism aside (Webster, p. 45), the results of the Google search, and the realities of high and low-tech industry as revealed by Devinatz suggest that far from having reached a society where information and service work predominate, we live in a society plagued by horrific manual work within the context of sweatshops.  Moreover, while Bell has argued that it is productivity in the primary and secondary sectors which has allowed for the development of the third (Webster, p. 47-48), given the above, it might be more accurate to suggest that the increased productivity of the lower sectors might in fact be derived from capitalist driven consumer demand at the tertiary level, reversing the causal chain proposed by Bell. Therefore, although Bell may be accurate in his emphasis on increased productivity within contemporary society, this increased productivity, rather than signalling a shift to PIS, may offer a framework for understanding the growing prevalence of industrial type sweatshops.

A final interesting finding within the parameters of the Google search which is supported by Devinatz’s (1999) experiences surrounds the blatantly obvious lack of union representation within both domestic and global sweatshops (Secrets, Lies, and Sweatshops, 2006; Hearts & Minds; Devinatz).  This point is especially significant in light of the propositions put forth by regulation school theory (Webster, pp. 81,82).  Although the lack of unions in both domestic and global sweatshops would appear to support the theoretical claims that the demise of the “solidaristic unionism” (Webster, p. 81) and “collectivist presumptions” (Webster, p. 81) of Fordist industrial workers is a reflection of changing social values following the transition to post-Fordism, which espouses instead “a revitalized enthusiasm for individualism and the ‘magic of the market’ that replace the discredited planning of the post-war years” (Webster, p. 81).  However, as forcefully argued by Lendman and Devinatz, it is not a “revitalized enthusiasm for individualism” (Webster, p. 81), nor a demise in a sense of solidarity and community which explains the lack of union presence within contemporary industrial sweatshops. Rather, this absence is more accurately a reflection of the extensive oppression and exploitation, fuelled by fear of the repercussions which would inevitably follow even mention of union activity (Hearts & Minds; Weinberg; Streetcents; Wikipedia).

As such, although Bell may be correct in his emphasis on the growing importance and prevalence of information and service type work, his social prognosis regarding these changes is overly optimistic, blinded by his insistence that “all societies are on the same developmental journey, one which must be followed en route to PIS” (Webster, p. 41), a journey which he argues is a positively progressive one.  Clearly the growing division of labour across the globe and the increasing human exploitation of developing countries whose citizens fall further into oppression would appear to suggest that PIS and IT benefit only a portion of the world’s population, while the others suffer further exploitation as the increasing need for IT expands.

Although one can appreciate Bell’s optimism and enthusiasm, reflective of a genuine hope for the creation of a better world, the prospects that PIS harkens that transition, when examined in light of the overwhelming presence of sweatshops as seen in our Google search, are weak.  If anything, unfortunately, the growing concerns surrounding sweatshops and global sweatshops undermines the imminent establishment of the more hopeful and egalitarian societies made possible through ICTs envisioned by Castell’s and Bell who believe that traditional inequalities based on class will be surperceded by larger social concerns such as environmentalism and feminism (Webster, pp. 42, 43).  Although the profusion of IT and information itself has allowed for increased awareness of such issues, the continued prevalence of sweatshops suggests that capitalist expansion at the expense of human oppression is far from over.

List of Works Cited

Behind the Label.org.  http://www.behindthelabel.org/

Canadian Labour Congress. “Sweatshops”.  http://www/canadianlabourca/issues/sweatshops

Devinatz, Victor, G. (1999). High-Tech Betrayal – Working and Organizing on the Shop Floor. Michigan State University Press.  Michigan.

Hanna, J. (2009). “Why Sweatshops Flourish”. Harvard Business School Working Knowledge. http://hbs.edu/cgi­-bin/print?id=6126

Hearts & Minds- Information for Change. “Sweatshops: Harsh Conditions Create Public Support for Reform” http://www.heartsandminds.org/articles/sweat.htm

Lendman, Steven. (2010). “Global Sweatshop Wage Slavery”.  Kanan48. http://kanan48.wordpress.com/2010/03/01/global-sweatshop-wage-slavery-by-stephen-lendman/

Library of Halexandria. “Sweatshops”.  http://www.halexandria.org/dward347htm

The Albion Monitor. “Children and the Global Sweatshop”. http://www.albionmonitor.com/sweatshop/ss-global.html

“Secrets, Lies, and Sweatshops” http://www.businesweek.com/print/magazine/content/06_48/b4011001.htm?chan=gl

SC – Episode 16. “Sweatshops”. http://www.cbc.ca/streetcents/archives/guide/2001/16/s02_01.html

Vegan Peace. “Sweatshops and Child Labor” http://www.veganpeace.com/sweatshops/sweatshops_and_child_labor.htm

Webster, F. (2006). Theories of Information Society. (3rd ed). Routledge: New York, NY.

Weinberg, P. (1997). “Canada’s Growth Industry: Sweatshops”. Albion Monitor/News http://www.albionmonitor.com/9704b/canadasweat/html

Wells, Don. (2003). “Global Sweatshops & Ethical Buying Codes”. Celebrating Forty Years With the Canadian Left.

Wikipedia. “Sweatshops”. http://en/wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sweatshop&printable=yes

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