Go East, Young Man

Chinese Sweatshops, Manhattan-Style

Why your clothes are made in China.

This week, I put down the books and visited the scene of a crime.

The crime occurred on the sixth floor of a brick-and-stone building sandwiched between a sausage factory and a parking garage. There, five years ago, behind grimy windows, Chinese women slaved for 11 hours a day, stitching garments for a subcontractor hired by Donna Karan International. The women received no bathroom breaks, no overtime pay, no sick days, no paid vacation, and no maternity leave. They were screamed at to “work faster” and paid “per piece”—earning wages that could only be called “living” if “living” means boiled water and rice. I didn’t see the actual factory—a burly security guard stood between me and the elevator and, by now, architectural, financial-planning, and travel services firms have supplanted it—but I craned my neck and got a look at the windows. I also daydreamed about a foray into real-estate development: The building’s gorgeous stone-work, terraces, and skyline and river views, it seemed, were easily convertible into multimillion-dollar lofts.

The sweatshop nightmare is one feared consequence of trade agreements that, in January, removed restrictions on how many apparel and textile products China can export to the United States. Now that the quotas are gone, the theory goes, greedy manufacturers will exploit slave-labor costs and illegal subsidies to make all textiles and clothes in Chinese factories. In so doing, they will eliminate the good textile jobs, the ones in America, where unionized employees earn middle-class wages and enjoy paid vacations, sick days, and other perks.

But is it that simple? The building I visited was on West 38th Street in midtown Manhattan, not in Shenzhen, and the miserable workers weren’t migrant Chinese peasants but immigrant Chinese and Latina women. The events took place in the late 1990s, before the quota rollbacks, and the American sweatshop workers were unionized—for all the good it did them. I have yet to see any apparel factories in China, but a New York clothing designer I spoke to said that the ones she had visited were “amazing”—clean, brightly lit, state-of-the-art facilities on large plots of land staffed by adult women, not kids—whereas the New York versions were “dark, dirty factories with a rice-cooker in the corner and shit all over the place.”

According to the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, a non-profit organization in the basement of the Brooklyn YMCA (where I knocked on a locked door and settled for a free copy of Sweatshop Nation), such dire conditions persist in New York. The newsletter described workers at a factory in Chinatown suing an employer for back-wages after enduring conditions so grueling that they had to send their babies back to China to be raised. In 1999, the Center for Economic and Social Rights estimated that 80 percent to 90 percent of the garment factories in Chinatown were sweatshops. Conditions have apparently improved since then—in part, perhaps, because so many of the jobs have left for China, et al.—but they are far from ideal.

For obvious reasons, elected officials in New York profess to be eager to improve matters. After leaving the former sweatshop building, I took the subway to City Hall. There, in a chandeliered room, beneath oil paintings of Civil-War-era men in epaulets, I listened to representatives from Mayor Bloomberg’s office, the city council, and non-profit organizations discuss the future of New York’s garment industry. One problem, everyone agreed, was overseas competition. Another problem was New York’s skyrocketing real-estate market, which was driving up rents and encouraging “illegal conversions” of manufacturing buildings into condos and lofts. The goal, the speakers agreed, was to preserve the “diversity” of New York’s economy by keeping apparel and textile manufacturing in the city and to improve wages and working conditions.

But these goals are often mutually exclusive—force expensive improvements and you’ll drive marginal manufacturers away (or, through subsidies, breed sluggish, lazy companies). Nationally, textile makers face an equally tricky dilemma. Citing explosive growth in China imports and devastating job losses, for example, the National Council of Textile Organizations is now begging the Bush administration to trigger the “safeguard” provisions of China’s trade agreements, which would create limits on the speed with which Chinese imports can take over the market and thereby ease the pressure on beleaguered U.S. textile manufacturers.

I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t heinous, human-rights-abusing sweatshops in China. There are. And China also subsidizes its textile and apparel industries to create jobs and suppresses its currency to keep exports cheap. Even so, the real reason our apparel and textile manufacturing jobs are moving to China (and elsewhere) is that they should. The free market is working the way it is supposed to: rewarding businesses supported by natural market demand—rapid, high-end apparel design and manufacturing in New York, for example—and forcing those that are no longer viable (mass-market manufacturing) to move, quit, or adapt. The process is painful, especially for those whose jobs and companies are eliminated but, on balance, it helps more than it hurts.

The root cause, moreover, has less to do with unfair trade practices and greedy companies than with us—the consumers. With some exceptions, we would rather pay less for our clothes than more, and moving production to China makes this possible. It also creates jobs in China, a benefit that, some might say, is as valuable as the creation (or preservation) of jobs here. The money we save on clothes is money we plow into other industries—media, entertainment, telecommunications, tourism, online retailing—all of which provide jobs that are often better than those lost in apparel and textiles. The New York economy might benefit from having businesses besides hedge funds, brokerage firms, and luxury condo developers, but we survived the loss of farming and trapping on the land that is now the Upper East Side, and we’ll survive the loss of garment manufacturing.

The third stop on my apparel-industry tour was an operational factory in Midtown, where a dozen middle-aged Chinese men and women worked in a cramped, sub-divided office the size of a Wall Street conference room. There was no screaming or threatening, and the workers seemed happy enough as they streamed out for lunch.

At a wooden table, amid heat pipes, fabric swatches, thread spools, and a clicking time-clock, the factory’s charming owner agreed that real-estate and overseas competition were a challenge but said that retaining talented employees was, too. Work in the fashion industry these days is sporadic, she said, and seamstresses often leave for steadier jobs at, for example, hotels. The big apparel companies have gone overseas, and even the small designers who remain are having a rough go of it. In the future, the owner suspected, she would simply offer high-end design and production consulting services and coordinate actual manufacturing in China. She didn’t seem depressed or outraged about this; rather, she seemed to regard it as a fact of life. And in free market capitalism—which, to bastardize Winston Churchill, is the worst economic system in the world except for all the others—this is just what it is.

As always, please send suggestions and feedback to chinagoldrush@yahoo.com.

Thanks to Sara Cross of coolnotcruel, Inc., Sarah Crean of the Garment Industry Development Corporation, and Cass Johnson of the National Council of Textile Organizations.