University of California, Santa Barbara
Case Method Website

CASE:
The Race to the Bottom in the Apparel Industry
Darcy Vandergrift[1], Department of Sociology, UC Santa Barbara

Abstract Case Text Teaching Notes
Abstract

This case examines working conditions in the apparel industry, focusing on a factory in Tehuacán, Mexico. The case has three actors: the owner of a high-end brand of blue jeans, a garment worker from a factory that subcontracts with this owner, and a university student on a fact finding mission to determine working conditions in the factory. Case participants will determine what these conditions entail and possible courses of action to improve them. Each participant has limitations as to the range of actions he or she can take. Each has varying levels of power, knowledge, and connection with the working conditions detailed. Students must decide how to create a course of action from each actor’s unique situated perspective.

The situation draws out important themes from the following topics: workers’ rights, the international division of labor, gender and development, social movements, and structure/agency debates. The case is also useful for examining the contours of free-market, Marxist, and world systems theories of explaining global stratification.

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Introduction    Printable format (Adobe PDF)

What is the price of the jeans we wear?

This case examines working conditions in the apparel industry, focusing on a factory in Tehuacán, Mexico. The case has three actors: the owner of a high-end brand of blue jeans, a garment worker from a factory that subcontracts with this owner, and a university student on a fact finding mission to determine working conditions in the factory. Case participants will determine what these conditions entail and possible courses of action to improve them. Each participant has limitations as to the range of actions he or she can take. Each has varying levels of power, knowledge, and connection with the working conditions detailed. Students must decide how to create a course of action from each actor’s unique situated perspective.

The situation draws out important themes from the following topics: workers’ rights, the international division of labor, gender and development, social movements, and structure/agency debates. The case is also useful for examining the contours of free-market, Marxist, and world systems theories of explaining global stratification. 

The Manufacturer, Los Angeles, California

WhoCares? (WC?) Jeans, owned by Jeffery Cares, creates and markets basic denim pants at fine department stores throughout the U.S. Based in Los Angeles, WC? employs a production management team and marketing staff of 125 employees. Most of them are native Californians. All of the production management team are male, with the marketing staff half women and half men. Their salaries range from $25,000 to $250,000 per year. They work in a quiet, air-conditioned office and have experienced only one workplace injury (a strained back) in five years. Since its inception, WC? has done none of its own production, contracting mainly Korean and Mexican owners of small factories in Los Angeles to sew jeans. These factories employ Asian and Latin American immigrants, mainly women, to produce garments.

But the pressure is on from retailers to reduce costs. Although a popular brand, retailers warn that consumers want less-expensive jeans -- and that other manufacturers are prepared to deliver. If retailers and consumers go elsewhere, WC? risks laying off staff in Los Angeles and even going out of business. Also, the constant monitoring of Los Angeles factory conditions -- most of which Mr. Cares has never seen -- creates an ongoing threat of bad publicity and fines from the Department of Labor.

Not wanting to lose out to the competition, Mr. Cares and his production team begin looking for an alternative to contracting their production in Los Angeles. After considering Bangladesh, Hong Kong, and Costa Rica, WC? locates a contractor with factories in Tehuacán, Mexico. WC? saves $1.50 per pair of jeans as a result of the move. 

The Garment Worker, Tehuacán, Mexico

Patricia Gomez wakes up at 4 a.m. She prepares breakfast. She readies her husband’s clothes for when he awakes at 5 to go to his work as a vegetable vendor. The couple relocated from Chiapas to Tehuacán four months ago. Although they miss their families in Chiapas, Ms. Gomez hopes the relocation will provide them with the income that they could not earn in the country.

She enters work at 7 a.m. Fabric particles fill the air, and the workers leaving the night shift cough and wheeze from hours of breathing in the poorly ventilated room. The factory where she works employs women to sew, like Ms. Gomez, mostly between the ages of 15 and 23. It is owned by a family from Mexico City; the plant managers are all men. She will work a twelve hour shift. The owners allow two bathroom breaks per day and twenty minutes for lunch.

She will sew the waistbands on over 100 pairs of jeans an hour. For this work, she is paid the equivalent of $5.20 each day. Ms. Gomez completes her work quickly in order to meet the quota of 80 pairs per hour - any additional work becomes a bonus for her. The jeans Ms. Gomez completes will be shipped back to the U.S. and sold with the WC? label. They retail for $54 in department stores. Including her labor, the jeans will cost WC? $12 to produce.

Since she is a fast worker, the bosses never yell at her like they do some of the women who cannot make the quota. She is concerned, however, that her work rate will slow due to recent numbness she has experienced in her fingers towards the end of the day. (The managers fired co-workers who experienced similar numbness.) She worries about breathing the contaminated air as well, as well as other hazards her fellow workers have warned her about.

Sylvia Krauss, Tehuacán, Mexico

A coalition of U.S. labor representatives, women’s organizations, concerned consumers and student activists are in Tehuacán, Mexico on a human rights fact-finding mission about conditions in Mexican WC? factories. Sylvia Krauss, a representative of the University of California Association of Students, is part of the delegation. She is concerned that WC? jeans, a popular brand on college campuses, forces workers to labor in unsafe conditions. She wants to recommend a course of action and recommendations for change to UC students and administration. Mr. Cares accompanies the mission. After hearing the above testimonies of Mr. Cares and Ms. Gomez, Ms. Krauss will ask questions about WC? manufacturing practices.

Notes


[i] This case was researched and written by Darcie Vandegrift. The three characters are composites of actual manufacturers, workers, and activists, and the working conditions described are derived from actual reports on factory conditions in Mexico. This case study was written based on 1992 interviews with Texas garment workers (Vandegrift 1992) and Edna Bonacich and Richard Appelbaum, Behind the Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). The term “race to the bottom” refers to capital’s international search for ever-cheaper labor in order to reduce manufacturing costs. See Edna Bonacich, Lucie Cheng, Norma Chinchilla, Nora Hamilton and Paul Ong (eds), Global Production: The Garment Industry in the Pacific Rim (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).


Works Cited 

Frobel, Folker, Jurgen Heinrichs, and Otto Kreye. 1980. The New International Division of Labor. Cambridge: Cambridgy University Press. 

Gereffi, Gary and Miguel Korzeniewicz. 1994. Commodity Chains and Global Capitalism. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Nash, June and Maria Patricia Fernandez Kelly, eds. 1983 . Women Men, and the International Division of Labor. Albany : State University of New York Press.

To find out more about social inequality in global production processes

Carla Freeman, High Tech and High Heels in the Global Economy. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.

Ankie Hoogvelt, Globalization and the Postcolonial World: The New Political Economy of Development. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997

Kim Moody, Workers in a Lean World. New York: Verso, 1997 

http://www.targetcorp.com/about/engagement.asp

http://nikebiz.com/labor/index.shtml

http://www.gapinc.com/about/global_manuf/stopping.htm

Learn about corporate responses to sweatshop issues.

Target Stores and The Gap are among the companies who have adopted standards of conduct in response to national concern about working conditions. They are also two companies who have refused to settle lawsuits regarding factory conditions in Saipan (see the plaintiffs’ case presented at http://www.globalexchange.org/economy/corporations/) 

United Students against Sweatshops organizes on campuses nationwide. Find out how your campus could become involved and what you can do. Learn about successful efforts by students nationwide organizing against sweatshops. http://www.usasnet.org

Coop America provides information on major anti-sweatshop campaigns and provides standards for consumers who want to avoid buying products using sweatshop labor. Provides quick and more in-depth options for taking action against sweatshops. http://www.coopamerica.org/sweatshops/ssresources.html

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Teaching Notes

This case study explores several important issues discussed in introductory sociology. Instructors hoping to add a global perspective to their discussions of structure and agency, social stratification, work, and social movements will find the case useful.

The factory owner, the garment worker, and the visiting activist hold perspectives and construct strategies based on their position in social structures of class, gender, and race. Within the case, students should discover what those structural limitations are and how agency for each actor operates. Workers in the case are not powerless; students to whom I have taught the case have used moral authority and worker solidarity to demand changes ranging from improved working conditions to land reform! Yet the range of their potential actions is very different than that of Jeffery Cares or Sylvia Krauss. In contrast, Cares is limited by the demands of retailers, but pressures from consumers like Krauss create yet another structure that encourages a different set of pressures to which he must respond. Instructors wishing to focus on issues of structure and agency can ask students to think about the limitations and possibilities for each actor given her or his structural conditions.

Even if instructors wish to emphasize a different aspect of the case, students should be reminded of the structures that shape their character’s range of action; they should also be encouraged to push the possibilities for change to the furthest degree, thereby altering structural conditions! An excellent follow-up to the case would encourage students to identify with the activist coalition (which includes students) and to point students to organizations run on college and university campuses and elsewhere to address these issues. Some web page references, current in February 2001, are listed below.

The participants might also enact the case as a way of examining social stratification by focusing on the global assembly line. After the case, students would be able to analyze the usefulness of market-oriented, Marxist, and world systems approaches to explaining working conditions in the Third World. In addition, the case illustrates the new international division of labor (Frobel, Heinrichs, and Kreye 1980) and adds the perspective of workers and activists to theories of commodity chains (Gereffi and Korzeniewicz 1994; Nash and Fernández Kelly 1983). For instructors wanting students to think about important issues around work in the economy, students could note the differences in working conditions for WC staff in Los Angeles versus Tehuacán as well as both the formal and informal economies. Other issues regarding work relevant to introductory sociology are discussed in the case as well: new systems of flexible production, subcontracting, and the global wage.

Finally, the case also illustrates important issues surrounding the topic of social movements. None of the three actors operates independently from the others; each exercises power derived from different sources. Students can think about how social movement organization participants devise strategies for action. The case will explore these dynamics on the ground, as they unfold. Case actors do not have an easy or obvious strategy before them. Rather, they must create them in an ongoing dialogue with the other actors.

This case challenges students to think creatively about how coalitions and actual solutions could be created in a situation where one actor (Jeffery Cares) will probably be initially assumed to hold all the power. Instructors may want to “level the playing field” by introducing students to examples of successful international workers’ organizations and first world activist groups before the day of the case. Global Exchange, based in San Francisco, has a great deal of information about anti-sweatshop campaigns. Although weak in the area of discussing worker agency, Arlen Benjamin and Medea Benjamin’s video, “Sweating for a T-Shirt” (Global Exchange) also describes campus activism.

I have taught this case “on the spot,” with students reading the materials in class for the first time. However, I recommend that the case be assigned ahead of time so students can map their positions on paper before the day the case is enacted in class. Several students may participate in the actual role play, or one student may represent each group. The groups should present their case -- perhaps using some of the teaching questions below --  in the order they appear in the case narrative, with earlier groups being allowed to respond to later groups as the case progresses.

Within an hour of class time, one possible allocation of time could be as follows:

  • 5 minutes for students to meet within their group to outline the main points of their presentation. Groups can be split into dyads or triads for this purpose.

  • 5 minutes for the Krauss group to state what they hope to discover while they are there and what they hope to do with the information.

  • 5 minutes each for Jeffery Cares and Patricia Gomez to present their side to the group.

  • This is the starting position; students do not have to offer solutions at this time.

  • This can be followed by 8 minutes for Krauss, who should ask each side the questions necessary to get at the major findings of the case. Work on listening to clarify each side’s major and minor concerns. Krauss should think about the kind of solutions they might propose from the perspective of concerned consumers.

  • Then a 3-5 minute concluding statement for each actor. Each group should state their “final” position and respond to what others propose in this order: Cares, Gomez, Krauss

  • Next, the instructor solicits responses from the group, tied in to the objectives related to the course material. For example, if studying social movements, the instructor could ask students what the challenges were in looking for solutions to the working conditions, and how each group exerted pressure to be heard.

  • In any remaining time (or in an assigned short paper), students and instructor can work on connecting the case findings with the topics around which the instructor has assigned the case.  

Teaching questions which may be used in preparation for the case

  • What stands out in this story for you?

  • Why would a manufacturer subcontract with a factory in Mexico to make clothing sold in the United States?

  • What are Patricia’s working conditions? 

Teaching questions to be used for class discussion or a short paper

  • What recommendations would you make from the perspective of the role you play? What recommendations would you make from your own perspective?

  • Is there an easy course of action to be created to improve working conditions in Patricia Gomez’s factory? Why or why not? What are some of the obstacles to improving conditions?

  • Who is the most powerful actor in the case? The least powerful? What structural limitations do each face? What kind of power does each exercise? 

This site is maintained by John Foran
Last update: June 2002.

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