books,  money,  politics

the complicated problem of sweatshops in Saipan

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Have you ever heard of the island of Saipan? It is an American territory in the pacific, which as a Canadian I had never heard of it until an email arrived from Walt Goodridge, who offered me two ebooks to review. One tells the story of a Chinese woman working in textile factories in Saipan. The other is a children’s book about a Philippine boy who wishes to be reunited with his father who works in Saipan.
The Boy Who Dreamed To Be With His Parents tells of a boy in a long-distance family, wishing to be reunited with parents who are away working.
The books are great books. The children’s book, by Bonnie Riza Ramos, is called The Boy Who Dreamed to be With His Parents on Saipan and it captures both happiness and sadness. The boy has what he calls a long-distance family, and he dreams of being reunited with his father who works in Saipan. Yet this goal takes his mother away from him too for a while in order to obtain the training and work experience for the job she wants in Saipan (as a nurse). When he finally is able to leave and go to the island paradise he longs for, he must suffer the grief at leaving behind the aunt and cousins whom he has been living with.

The other book is called Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin: Diary of Chinese Factory Girl on Saipan. It has a wonderful collection of sayings within it, such as “like a clay idol fording a river hardly able to save myself let alone anyone else” or “without coincidences, there would be no stories.” Told by Chu Yu Wang to Walt Goodridge, it creates a very lively and complicated story of life in a factory. Imagine young women bent over rows of sewing machines, working with all their might. Far from home they live in the company barracks where, with no air conditioning, they soak their bedding with water before going to sleep. They are frustrated by the corruption that means they must pay bribes to their supervisors, and by the poor conditions. Yet they have paid large amounts of money in order to have the job and they strive to fill their daily quota so that they will be granted overtime work and not have to waste the extra hours of the day unpaid. They want the jobs because they can earn more money there than they would be able to back home in China, and for some it is a respectable way to find distance from an unhappy marriage.

The textile industry in Saipan ended in 2009 with changes to the immigration laws and an increase in the minimum wage. Companies packed up and left, and many of the foreign workers returned to their homes. Presumably similar sweatshops were then set up in other locations where wages where lower.

What do I make of it all? Certainly the books complicate the image of sweatshops as these exploitative places that need to be closed instantly. Raising the minimum wage did result in a large number of women losing their jobs. (Though it did probably result in a different group of women elsewhere being given jobs.) Yet the stories don’t exactly leave the impression that everything is fair and dandy either.

Over lunch I engaged my family in a brainstorming session on what could have helped the women. My oldest child queried, “wouldn’t the solution just be to raise the wages in China so the women wouldn’t have to leave to go to work elsewhere?”

We discussed how the inspections (both government and by the companies commissioning the clothing) were scheduled and safety precautions that would have hindered productivity were put in place. Unscheduled, unannounced inspections could have been helpful but they would have to be accompanied by an acceptance of lower productivity. How do we force companies to accept lower productivity?

I wondered about whether there could have been some sort of unemployment insurance and changes to the worker’s visa policies that would have made it safer for women to complain when they had problems with their employers. Or perhaps limits on the bringing in of new foreign employees to encourage people to hire women already on the islands, so that losing a job at one factory would not be as devastating.

My impression of the books was shaped partly by having just finished reading the collection of essays published as the book The Curious Feminist, by Cynthia Enloe. A few of her essays deal with the offshore sneaker industry, and she writes:

Sneaker company executives depend on these Korean women’s marriage strategies. The South Korean government depended on this. These elite men know that women who were foused on their daughterly responsibilities and on marriage dowries were women who were not likely to strike for decent pay, for the right to unionize, or for democratic reforms. Thus when we think about globalization – and resistance to its more exploitative dynamics – we need to take women factory workers’ own priorities and strategies seriously. 

Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skins does take serious the women worker’s own priorities, as it is the story as told by one of those workers, Chu Yu Wang. Besides telling her own story it includes many stories of her friends. They have the “lived experience” of being a factory worker, yet because its telling her personal story it doesn’t provide the bigger picture for me to understand the extent to which Chinese women are interested or able to leave home in search of work. Is it simply a need for better wages in China, as my son suggested, or are there other factors at work? What does it take to create the circumstances where people feel safe and have the abilities to stand up for themselves? Definitely the book portrays a scenario where without working with the women to fix the problems they want, the actions to improve their situation fall flat.

Cynthia Enloe also writes:

The not-so-new plot of the international trade story has been “divide and rule.” If women workers and their government in one country can see that a sneaker company will pick up and leave if their labor demands prove more costly than those in a nieghbouring country, then women workers will tend to see their neighbours not as regional sisters, but as competitors who can “steal” their precarious livelihoods. Playing women off against each other is, of course, old hat. Yet the promotion of women-verse-women distrust remains an essential to international trade policies as the fine print in WTO agreements.

I have heard people defend sweatshops on the basis that sweatshops provide jobs for those who need.  To a large extent these books reinforce that idea, yet the books leave me wondering, what would it take to create a world where everyone can be meaningfully employed in safe conditions? Where family separations can be minimized? I think about things like alternative forms of measuring national well being rather than the gross domestic product – forms that measure the welfare of a nation as something closer to how it is lived by individuals rather than simply the measurement of the transferring of money. We need a world that works for people’s benefits.

Is part of the solution being willing to pay more for our products? I think it probably is, but that we would need a way of knowing the money would actually go to improving worker’s situations. Do we need fair-trade inspectors for clothing as well as chocolate and coffee? Saipan is an American territory, so the clothing manufactured there was labelled “Made in America.” My husband expressed appreciation that we can buy second hand clothing and know we are not contributing directly towards the garment factories, since we cannot know what share of the price goes towards production.

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One Comment

  • ChristyM

    These are good questions. We observed similar situations when we lived abroad. It is heart wrenching. I think many westerners would be willing to make changes if we knew that we were making a difference. I think that these issues are more complex than that though. Education of some sort may be important.

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