Scholar: Focus on women workers’ rights

Shruti Kumar

The most hopeful sign for the future of women workers in the apparel industry is the public association of brand-name companies with sweatshops, feminist scholar Jane Collins told about 25 people Friday at the sociology department, 1808 Chicago Ave.

While the clothing industry may benefit financially from using brand names, she said this practice also can destroy companies when consumers connect brand names with unfair labor practices of sweatshops.

“People do care,” Collins said. “I would pay a dollar more for a dress to know it was made in good working conditions.”

Collins’ lecture kicked off the “Gender, Power, and World of Nations” series, a new project of the graduate program of gender studies. Profs. Micaela di Leonardo and Ann Orloff organized the series together.

Collins promoted her upcoming book, “Globalizing the Garment Industry,” a study of the globalization of the apparel industry, the lives of working women, and organization and ideology.

Collins, who studied gender and economy in Peru and Brazil, is an anthropologist in the sociology department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a key adviser in the anti-sweatshop movement on campus.

She also spoke about her research project that included fieldwork in the United States and Mexico. Her venture involved case studies of two large firms, Liz Claiborne and a company that made clothing for stores such as Kmart.

Collins compared the labor processes of high- and low-end firms in the United States and Mexico.

“The garment industry is not the same anymore,” Collins said, explaining that firms are becoming bigger. This growth has led to retail consolidation, which has resulted in an unprecedented drop in the price of clothes.

As a result, the apparel industry has begun to seek cheap labor worldwide.

Collins said the wages of women workers in Mexico did not even come close to meeting the cost of their nutritional needs, let alone covering the cost of adequate housing.

Turnover in factory ownership causes women to lack clarity about who their employers are, Collins said. Additionally, female workers in Mexico cannot pursue labor activism because their working environment does not foster complex social relationships, she said.

To improve conditions for women working in sweatshops, Collins said that activism must focus on human rights.

“Many people have been saying quite vocally and frequently that we can’t have workers’ rights in a society that doesn’t have human rights,” Collins said. “What is obvious when one studies the apparel industry is that these human rights must include a whole array of womens’ rights.”