Multinational Monitor

OCT 2001
VOL 22 No. 10


Payday Profiteers: Payday Lenders Target the Working Poor
by Kari Lydersen

Renting to Owe: Rent-to-Own Companies Prey on Low-Income Consumers
by Jake Lewis


The View from Below
How the U.S. Working Poor Don’t Get By
an interview with
Barbara Ehrenreich

Migrating from
Exploitation to Dignity
Immigrant Women Workers and the Struggle for Justice
an interview with
Miriam Ching Yoon Louie

The Community Development Credit Union Alternative
an interview with
Clifford Rosenthal


Behind the Lines

Wartime Opportunism

The Front
Easy on Sunday Morning - Poverty and Mental Health

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


Migrating from Exploitation to Dignity Immigrant Women Workers and the Struggle for Justice

An interview with Miriam Ching Yoon Louie

Miriam Ching Yoon Louie is the author of Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take on the Global Factory. She works with the Women of Color Resource Center in Berkeley, California, and formerly served as national campaign media director of Fuerza Unida and Asian Immigrant Women Advocates.

Multinational Monitor: What are the forces fueling immigration to the United States?

Miriam Louie: The Chinese, Mexican and Korean immigrant women workers whose stories are featured in Sweatshop Warriors all came from regions that have long been the target of U.S. capital export and labor import, as well as of U.S. military occupation, political domination and cultural penetration. The economies and labor markets of these countries have grown even more tightly intertwined with that of the United States thanks to the globalization of sweatshop production and enactment of other World Bank, WTO and IMF neoliberal policies.

Puerto Rico, the northern border of Mexico, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines all served as early stations of the global assembly line which tapped into young women’s highly exploited labor in industries such as garments, electronics, wigs, shoes, textiles, plastics and toys. Governments showered multinational corporations with handsome profits and perks.The global sweatshop has since spread to many other countries.

South Korea, the Philippines and others also used the sex industry to generate foreign exchange. U.S. corporate and military policies thus helped accelerate internal migration to urban centers and free trade zones and external migration across borders and oceans.

For example, ever since the U.S. annexed half of Mexico’s territory by seizing Texas and precipitating the Mexican-American War in 1845, Mexican workers have served as a giant labor reserve for the U.S. economy. Migration experts say that the U.S. government actually precipitated the flow of undocumented workers by instituting the bracero program to meet labor shortages in agriculture during the First World War while criminalizing those who crossed the border without documents. The maquiladora program for multinational corporations drew even more workers to migrate up to the border in search of jobs. In many cases, people later moved into the U.S. itself.

Once the process is opened up, chain migration networks develop, as workers’ family members and neighbors join the migration pathways connecting home villages with communities in the U.S.

There are also powerful pull factors. Many industries and upper- and middle-class professionals in the U.S. have come to depend on the low-waged labor of immigrant workers.

MM: What’s the process for an individual person that connects the global factories you’re talking about — which represent the export of capital out of the United States — to the immigration of workers to the United States?

Louie: The histories of the women leaders I interviewed read like timelines and road maps of the global economy. Many started out working in global assembly line jobs in their own countries as girls. Now they continue to work in sweatshops inside the United States. A number migrated in a 2-stage process –– first to urban, industrializing centers and free trade zones within their home countries, then on to jobs in the United States. Some of the Mexican women had commuted to jobs as seamstresses or domestic workers before permanently settling in the United States.

In some cases, the women had family ties with workers who migrated during previous stages of labor recruitment. For instance, Chinese immigrants first started working on plantations and railroads before the passage of Chinese exclusion laws in the 1880s. After the lifting of racist restrictions on immigration in 1965, many of the Chinese and Korean women were sponsored through relatives. In some cases, facing a crisis, women migrated to the U.S. irrespective of whether they had family, friends or village ties in the U.S. to ease that process.

MM: Are the forces that are spurring these migration patterns different for men and women?

Louie: International women’s movement activists talk about the “feminization of migration” as part of the global economic restructuring process, where the rate of female migration has caught up to and, in some cases, surpassed the rate of male migration. In the sending countries, governments, banks, labor contractors and crime syndicates have grown dependent on migrant women’s remittances, foreign exchange, licensing fees and extorted labor.

During earlier stages of U.S. history, early labor recruitment drew heavily on males, especially in industries demanding heavy physical labor, such as railroads and agribusiness, although some women also migrated to work in agriculture, food processing, garment and domestic work. But over time, with the growth of family migration networks, changes in women’s social and economic status and immigration policies, more women have joined global migration streams.

MM: Where are women immigrants to the United States finding work?

Louie: Many find jobs in the garment, restaurant, hotel, electronics and healthcare industries and as domestic, farm, homecare and custodial workers –– basically, low-paid jobs in the manufacturing, high-tech, agricultural and service industries. The women encounter racism and national chauvinism within traditionally sex-segregated industries, and sexism and national chauvinism within race-segregated industries.

Latina/os represent 60 percent and Asians 35 percent of workers in all garment factories in the United States which the government classifies as sweatshops. Latina/os represent 53 percent and Asians 25 percent of workers in sweatshop restaurants. Eighty percent of farmworkers in the U.S. are of Mexican descent. Organizers from Líderes Campesinas (The Farmworker Women’s Leadership Network), a California-based organization of farmworker women, told me that some of the higher-paying jobs — such as citrus production and harvesting — go to men, while lower-paying ones, like weeding and tending crops in rows, go to women.

MM: Have you seen women of different ethnic groups go to work in different sectors?

Louie: It depends on how the migration flows look in different parts of the country. According to the 2000 Census, Latinos make up 32 percent of California’s population and Asians, 12 percent. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the majority of garment workers –– about 85 percent –– are Asian women, mainly Chinese, whereas in Los Angeles, an estimated 47 percent of garment workers are Mexican, 14 percent Central American, with smaller numbers of Chinese, Vietnamese and Koreans. On the East Coast, many New York garment workers are Asian and from the Caribbean, with an increasing number of Mexican women. Mexican migration is spreading out from the traditional hubs in the Southwestern states and Illinois to the Midwest, South and East Coast.

MM: Who is employing these women?

Louie: It varies in different sectors. In the garment and electronics industries, workers’ immediate bosses are subcontractors, often of their own ethnicity. But manufacturers and retailers sit at the top of the sweatshop pyramid, setting wages and working conditions; while subcontractors act as buffers, with the immigrant women working on the bottom. In hotels and homecare, the big chains hire them. In custodial work, the direct bosses are often contractors. In restaurants, it’s often ethnic owners. In domestic work, it’s individual employers, in some cases connected through employment agencies.

Sweating workers through subcontracting has emerged as the standard in many industries, resulting in cuts in wages, benefits, working conditions and job stability. For example, immigrant garment workers in Los Angeles are paid less than 2 percent of the total value of the goods they produce. For a dress that retails for $100, $1.75 goes to the sewer, $15 to the contractor, and $50 to the manufacturer.

MM: What kind of conditions are they encountering in the jobs they take?

Louie: The women typically make less than minimum wage, often through the piece-rate system, working 10 to 14 hours a day, six to seven days a week, under unsafe conditions. In Los Angeles, Asian and Latina garment workers annually average from $5,400 to $7,500 a year, while New York seamstresses are lucky if they can make $7,000 a year. They’re not getting the breaks or paid overtime legally mandated. In most cases, they don’t get health benefits or worker’s compensation. They suffer from a number of injuries and illnesses. Of the estimated 22,000 garment shops in the United States, over half are categorized by the Department of Labor as sweatshops, which means that they violate multiple labor laws.

A number of the restaurant workers described similar conditions of working 12-hour days, six or seven days a week. Sometimes they work split shifts so that their entire waking hours are completely dominated by their work schedules. Many domestic workers are live-in and on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

MM: How have the kinds of conditions you’re describing changed over time?

Louie: Many of the veteran workers complain that the situation has gone from bad to worse during the past 10 years. They have been forced to work longer hours, endure speedup in production, and see their wages and benefits drop. Many complain of getting stiffed out of their back wages. If they complain, the bosses threaten to give their jobs away to someone who’s more desperate.

One of the Chinese seamstresses I interviewed in New York sewed for Streetbeat Sportswear, a subcontractor for Sears. She told how workers were forced to put in over hundred-hour weeks for less than $2 an hour. This was killing them; they were having all kinds of injuries as a result. When they tried to organize, the boss and his thugs stormed the offices of the group that had backed them –– the Chinese Staff and Workers Association –– and made death threats on the organizers.

A Thai worker from the sweatshop in El Monte, California, told how workers were held captive behind razor wires, sewing 20-hour days, 7 days a week, under owner threats of violence against them and their families back home.

MM: What has made things worse?

Louie: Global economic restructuring is running its course and taking its toll on workers’ lives. The companies are exploiting more and more women overseas and inside the U.S. When immigrant garment workers in Los Angeles tried to organize, Guess? management mounted a massive anti-union campaign and ran away to Mexico, dumping their L.A. workers.

NAFTA-impacted workers organized by La Mujer Obrera (The Woman Worker) and the Asociación de Trabajadores Fronterizos (Association of Border Workers) blame their community’s crisis on the U.S. and Mexican governments’ policies of free trade, corporate irresponsibility, government neglect, and the flight of thousands of jobs across the border.

Chinese seamstresses reported that bosses play the documented workers off against the undocumented workers. With the documented workers, bosses threaten to hire undocumented workers who owe smugglers $30,000 and fear violence against themselves and family members back home if they don’t pay up.

Restaurant workers who went to Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates for help said that when they stood up for their rights, their boss threatened to report undocumented workers to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and get them deported.

MM: How are women immigrant workers responding to these processes?

Louie: These women workers are experts on the global economy, spark plugs and grassroots leaders in the economic justice, labor and anti-corporate movements, speaking from the bottom of the sweatshop pyramid. Their organizations have roots in the Latina/o and Asian community and labor movements that emerged in the sixties and seventies. In some cases, the women cut their organizations out of whole cloth during a crisis. They sought to break their isolation, connect with other people, learn new skills and improve their lives. They went on to become the leaders of industry-wide campaigns for corporate and governmental accountability and to develop alternative safety net programs and systems within their communities.

Basically, their centers act as infrastructures of support for workers to gather and organize themselves to fight for their rights and meet their needs. The workers centers are the flip side of the global economic restructuring process. These guerrilla warrior groups flexibly organize “niche markets” of immigrant, women and ethnic minority workers segregated at the bottom of the sweatshop economy.

MM: One example you highlight is Fuerza Unida.

Louie: In 1990, Levi’s laid off 1,150 workers –– the majority of whom were Mexican American women in San Antonio –– and ran away to Costa Rica, where workers made in a day what the Texas workers had earned in half an hour.

The workers, many of them long-time employees, and their families were devastated by the layoffs, but they began to meet in a church and talk to each other about what had happened. They began to piece together who had been paid what, what had been told to different people, and how they had been pitted against each other. The organization they created, Fuerza Unida, served as a combined grief-counseling center, women’s support group, crisis hot line, information nucleus, and launching pad for workers to articulate their demands and vision.

The women declared a national boycott against Levi’s and began to educate people across the country and internationally about their cause. They made connections with women in other communities, including in Central America and Mexico, who had also been hurt by corporations and free trade. They developed their own sewing co-op and food bank for poor women in the community.

While the company has yet to give justice to the San Antonio workers, the women believe that their struggle resulted in a better severance package for the 18,500 workers that Levi’s dumped between 1990 and 1997. When confronted, a company representative admitted that “there’s no denying that San Antonio in 1990 had something to do with the development of these benefits in 1997,” and that Levi’s had failed to anticipate how much criticism it would receive from the San Antonio community.

At first, the company denied it would send the jobs overseas, but later CEO Bob Haas admitted that operations would probably relocate to Mexico and Central America. Levi’s also announced that it would reopen production in China. Fuerza Unida’s struggle may have also delayed the layoff of thousands of workers by several years. Levi’s had been closing its U.S. plants and outsourcing the work overseas throughout the 1980s until challenged by the San Antonio workers.

The women say they were early victims of NAFTA and that “nothing can replace a job with dignity.”

MM: How have the workers’ centers related to unions?

Louie: The centers organize those pockets of workers overlooked by the trade union movement and have influenced some unions, especially in those industries and cities where they operate. Unions and individuals within unions that have been more aggressive about organizing the unorganized, reaching out to workers of color, forging alliances with community organizations, and not rolling over to management, have tended to have better relations with the workers centers. With others who have not so been open, the relationships have not been so great.

MM: In Sweatshop Warriors, you write about what the women are fighting for as well as what they are against. What do you mean by that?

Louie: Sweatshop industry workers have to put up a tremendous fight just to get the basic legal rights that workers in more protected sectors of the U.S. economy take for granted.

In taking up these battles, the women immediately ran up against all these really powerful structures. You see that in any of the campaigns these women have taken on. They began to challenge the fundamental premises of the sweatshop power pyramid, the ethics of the global economy, the greed and lack of accountability of corporations to workers, their communities and the environment.

It’s basically a bunch of poor people going up against corporations that have a lot of connections and ties with the media, banks, other corporations, and government officials. The companies have slick management consultants who advise them on how to pulverize and demoralize their workers.

At the same time, the women I interviewed said that the terrible abuses they suffered opened their eyes. They began to link up with other people at their jobs, other people in their communities. They began to meet people who were suffering similar kinds of wrongs, both within the U.S. and internationally. They began to realize that they were part of a bigger family, a bigger community. They began to see their fight for justice as part of a bigger movement. They began to build an alternative vision of economic justice and networks of solidarity and community.

In the beginning, a number of women said they were surprised and gratified when folks who were not from their community or ethnic group would come out to support their struggle.

You see the women reciprocate that solidarity. They spoke of how they drew encouragement and energy from all the new friends they’ve made and new consciousness and skills they had accrued.

They described how they’ve been energized by the organizing they’ve done and the connections they’ve made.

They marvel at the new skills and consciousness they’ve gained. They’ve learned to run national boycotts, throw up picket lines, chair meetings, operate computers, design curricula and training sessions. They’ve organized regional and international conferences to connect with people from all walks of life. They’ve set up their own survival programs and community support networks for poor women and their families. As a result, they’ve grown more confident.

As women, they play a key role within families and the broader community. When they act, it touches a lot of people. They are a huge asset to our communities.

Their campaigns have really struck a chord with the youth, especially those whose mothers, aunts and grandmothers work in these industries. For example, Asian Immigrant Women Advocates developed a strong youth leadership project. Members have mothers who work in the garment and electronics industries. They put together plays and videos. Young supporters of Chinese Staff and Workers Association founded the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops and launched a campaign for corporate responsibility from Donna Karan of New York to underpaid and laid-off workers. The group also fights for the health and safety rights of injured workers from many different immigrant communities.

The women who endured so much suffering at the bottom of the sweatshop pyramid have reached out to organize others going through the same abuses they experienced.

They serve as the tree shakers who knock down the fruit, the piñata busters who break open the goodies — of economic democracy, gender justice and human rights — for all of us.

Their eloquent words and deeds must spur us all to action.

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