Agency, Gender Identities, and Clothing Consumption: The Discourse on Garment Workers

Agency, Gender Identities, and Clothing Consumption: The Discourse on Garment Workers

Fatema Rouson Jahan (University of Dhaka, Bangladesh)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-6912-1.ch022
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The chapter critically analyses the discourses on global factory workers that rest on three assumptions. First, the discussions of production are centred on stories of victimhood and produce a homogeneous image of third world workers as cheap and docile, who are affected by global labour market dynamics similarly and equally. Second, the third world is always theorised as a site of production and women factory workers are always positioned as sweatshop workers and never as consumers. Third, women's role as consumers appears only in relation to white women from the global north, who are assumed to have more purchasing power. Third world workers' consumption practices have been largely overlooked. The chapter problematises some of these assumptions. It proposes to look at the gender dynamics in the lives of women workers in global garment factories with a focus on their clothing consumption in order to further an approach that acknowledges the heterogeneity and agency of garment workers.
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Women Workers In The Global Factories

Women’s incorporation into global industrialisation has been facilitated by two processes. First, the rising cost of labour in the developed countries led to a restructuring and relocation of the industrial production process from developed to developing countries where low wages were paid (Kabeer, 2000). Second, in the newly-relocated production sites, women were preferred as the workforce because they were assumed to have naturally ‘nimble fingers’; they are cheap to employ, docile and are less likely to join the trade unions than men (Elson & Pearson, 1981).

Women’s employment opportunities in the global factories have been regarded positively in a number of studies (Lim, 1985; Tinker, 1976). The decision to work outside home itself speaks of a certain level of power and agency within the household, particularly in contexts where the decision is negotiated and/or made in the face of disagreement from other family members. The decision to work also brings further opportunities for women, because ‘once the decision to work ha[ve] been negotiated in women’s favour, all the potentials associated with earning wages bec[o]me part of the expanded possibilities open to women, an expansion which they themselves ha[ve] initiated, whether or not they then actualised their full potential’ (Kabeer, 2000, p. 189).

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