TODAY MY CLOTHING runs the gamut of innocuous Minnesota summerwear: cutoffs (Levi's), and a T-shirt (Tweeds), with some Calvin Klein in there somewhere. More than a turn-on, this little foray into "What are you wearing" is the requisite first question that NYU cultural-studies guru Andrew Ross forgets to ask in No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade, and the Rights of Garment Workers. Such a personal line of investigation would likely implicate Ross (and me) in the middle of the gross human-rights violations of the American garment industry. The absence of it allows this substantial and wrenching (if not also pedantic and spotty) collection of essays to remain at a safe distance from all that it purports to criticize and care about.
Taken as a whole, No Sweat documents a culture of disposable people. This cycle begins with the international free-trade zones established by the U.S. government that set an automatic precedent for privatized, unregulated labor. The maquilladora shops that follow--located in ever-cheaper locales--depend on a plentiful labor force willing to work for as little as 29 cents a day. Such willingness comes from the knowledge that better options have been made unavailable in debilitated local economies, and from an understanding that to protest is to be fired.
No Sweat's contributors, including labor unionists, industry advocates, journalists, academics, and one garment worker, restage the economic and political environment of the 1980s that led companies to contract business out to countries eager to provide labor at the lowest prices. The writers address other facets of the garment industry in a global economy as well: how Disney's Haitian factories guarantee and enforce starvation wages while workers battle locked bathrooms, sexual harassment, and an impossibly high cost of living; and how immigrant slave labor in California is made commonplace by the practice of piecework pay, and the constant threat of the I.N.S. But even No Sweat's comprehensive cynicism can't begin to make sense of an abhorrent ad like the following, placed in a U.S. trade journal: "Rosa Martinez produces apparel for U.S. markets on her sewing machine in El Salvador. You can hire her for 33 cents an hour. Rosa is more than just colorful. She and her co-workers are known for their industriousness, reliability, and quick learning. They make El Salvador one of the best buys."
The information is harrowing, but the essays are often sensationalistic, and at times badly written. No Sweat begins by taking a cue from Cynthia Enloe's stunning reportage and analysis in her 1990 Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, but degenerates into a witless Routledge culture reader. The last third of the collection is devoted to a misguided analysis of the aesthetic politics of fashion rather than of the economics and politics of the industry's workers. And Ross, too timid even to consider the word feminism in his introduction to a book primarily about female workers, doesn't ever 'fess-up to his own predilection for black suits by Commes des Garcon.