Lessons for Social Change in the Global Economy
Jayanti is worried and she never felt like this before. Working as a garment worker for more than 18 years in Sri Lanka, she thought she had seen the worst. At 17, she moved out of her village to help her family out of poverty by working in garment factories near Colombo. Life has never been easy for her. It has been marked by very low wages, excessive overtime and filthy and crowded living conditions. She was called ‘Juki girl’ and abused many times both inside and outside the factory. Over the years she has changed jobs, but the conditions have hardly changed. Her body gave up many times but she always came back as there were no other jobs available. Yet she tolerated it, hoping for a better life for her children. Padma, her 16 year old daughter, has been unable to finish school due to the financial burden and may have to join Jayanti as a garment worker. Jayantis desperately trying to hold back her tears for the fear it may spoil the shirt she is sewing, yet one can see the rage in her eyes – nothing has changed for her over past two decades and her children may have to face the same.
Jayanti’s story exemplifies the condition of millions of garment workers spanning dozens of developing countries in Asia and across the world. Jayanti’s story reverberates with Fatma, working in Ashulia – near Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Tevy, a garment worker from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and all those workers at the lowest tier of the multi-billion dollar garment supply chain. It is a known fact that global garment production takes place through an intricate web of supply chains spread around the globe. This process of production, which has been in existence for more than three decades, is carried out by workers, predominantly young migrant women, in workplaces better identified as ‘sweatshops’, in conditions that have been proven over the years to be inhumane.
Just as this chapter was being written, it was announced that Amancio Ortega, the founder and Director of Spanish Clothing giant the Inditex group – better known for its brand Zara, became the third richest person in the world with an estimated wealth of about US$ 46 billion. Ironically his wealth is more than three times than the GDP of Cambodia (estimated at US$ 12.9 billion), where many of the 300,000 garment workers stitch garments for Zara earning a meager US$ 60-80 a month, working for more than 10–12 hours a day. There is more irony to this, reflective of the nature of the garment supply chain. This rise of Amancio Ortega also comes at a time when Spain is reeling under one of the worst economic crises in its history; workers in Spain are struggling, the unemployment rate has reached 25 per cent and is still spiraling. In an extreme contrast with Jayanti’s story and those of millions of workers in many countries, including in his own country, Ortega’s accumulation of wealth reflects the injustice and exploitative nature of the global supply chain system.
This paper discusses the global supply chain system and analyses it as a symbol of exploitation and capital accumulation in the era of the ‘global factory’. It describes the impact of the global supply chain system. In particular, the chapter describes uneven development and unequal relationships between countries in Asia, and elaborates how the supply chains model of growth has impacted upon working populations and the environment. It argues that global supply chains cannot be reformed by Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), since CSR is a form of charity rather than representing any meaningful structural change. The chapter concludes with a proposed agenda for labour movements.