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[Excerpt] Recent tragedies in Bangladesh and Pakistan have led to greater public attention on the garment and textile industry. Hence, this study is timely and provides insights into the current working conditions, organizing efforts, and the changing organization and structure of the industry in question. Our central question in this study is the extent to which worker organization can improve monitoring and enforcement of labor standards in subcontracted and home-based work in the garment and textile sectors in Brazil, China, India, and South Africa. Existing research literature suggests that in at least some cases of informalized and casualized work, formation and mobilization of worker organizations can do much in this regard. The research has particularly pointed to the importance of innovative and alternative forms of organization that depart from standard trade union models—in line with the departure of whole sections of the world of work from standard forms of work organization. While suggestive, this literature has been dominated by cases of a single organization in a single country, or in some cases convenience samples of organizations from one or a range of countries.

This report thus makes two distinctive contributions. First, it spotlights a set of specific sector-country combinations that have received limited attention at best in previous research. Second, it assembles a systematic comparison of organizing activities in a single sector (apparel and textile) across four countries with very different economies, institutional structures, and histories. This comparison points to some possibilities for generalization to a broader range of countries.

At the same time, the study design, itself centered on case studies, builds in important limitations. The four countries in question range in size from large to very large, including the two largest countries in the world by population, China and India. The garment and textile sector, as the conjunction “and” signals, combines a variety of economic units and activities ranging from huge, highly automated textile mills producing standardized outputs to individual home-based seamstresses carrying out custom work. Narrowing the focus to subcontracted and home-based work limits this variety somewhat, but as we will see in all four countries, given the current pervasiveness of subcontracting in this industry, it is not a major narrowing. At the same time, the case study nature of the research, and its limited scale and duration, necessitates a focus on a small number of organizations in countries where organization is relatively advanced (India and South Africa), or on a single productive region in countries where organizations are still at an early, experimental stage (China and Brazil, though in the latter case we were able to supplement the in-depth regional study with a look at organization in a different region as well). The organizations and regions are chosen because of their importance as distinctive examples, and because in their entirety or in key aspects they have remained understudied in previous research. The resulting cases are valuable in their own right, but degree of generalizability across the full clothing and textile sector and the full countries in question is unknown.


Suggested Citation
Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, University of California at Los Angeles. (2013). Final report: Informal worker organizing as a strategy for improving subcontracted work in the textile and apparel industries of Brazil, South Africa, India and China. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs.