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  • Volume Eight, Number Five: July 2003

    Book Reviews
    Tom Sanborn

    A Canadian Success Story?

    Gildan Activewear: T-Shirts, Free Trade and Worker Rights

    By the Maquila Solidarity Network and the Honduran Independent Monitoring Team

    May 2003

    $10.00    57 pages

    Our era's public debates about world capitalism's latest incarnation (which we have learned to call globalization, and to treat as if it were a new phenomenon, as if capital hasn't been moving goods and labour around the globe since the creation of the world market in African slaves) is often pitched at a deafeningly high level of abstraction and rhetorical fervor. Too often, it is hard to hear through the argumentative clamour to the actual voices of the working people who spend long days and nights serving the global assembly line.

    Two recent publications from Toronto's Maquila Solidarity Network represent refreshing exceptions; both present a view of the globalization process that is fundamentally rooted in face to face interviews with workers caught up in the gears of globalization, and gives that abstract noun distinct, detailed human reality. There is more on offer here, however, than simple oral history. 

    The testimony of workers on the front line is enriched by sophisticated analysis of the changing structure of the global apparel industry, already transformed by the creation of trade agreements like NAFTA and braced for even more transformation in 2005, when the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing expires and, with it, a structure of quotas and tariffs that has defined the industry's basic operating system in the last decades of the 20th century. These small books are valuable resources for any student, general reader  or scholar who wants to enhance her understanding of just how global capital works these days, and how that system affects the lives of its line workers. 

    (I should declare an interest here. Key figures in the Maquila Solidarity Network are old and valued friends, and I have done some volunteer work for the organization over the years, so my response to the two works under review is not entirely neutral.)

    A Canadian Success Story is a case study of Gildan Activewear, a Canadian firm that has emerged in the last half decade as one of the giants in the North American wholesale T-shirt market. Despite a good relationship with organized labour in Quebec, where its few remaining North American plants are unionized, and where the labour-based FTQ pension plan is a minor stockholder in the company, Gildan's off-shore operations (which now generate 97% of its annual production) have been plagued recently with accusations of union busting, compulsory and under-compensated overtime, health and safety problems and discrimination against pregnant women workers.

    Gildan spokespeople categorically deny all of these accusations, but researchers for the CBC TV program Disclosure, who interviewed workers in Gildan's Honduran plants for a January broadcast in 2002 found many company employees who testified to the continued presence of all these abuses and more, and the MSN research conducted for A Canadian Success Story?  in partnership with Central American human rights groups also found many interviewees who portrayed the T-shirt giant as a less than ideal employer. The reader is free, of course, to draw independent conclusions on all these disputed claims, although Gildan has recently made energetic efforts through threats of legal action and lobbying of MSN supporters to discourage the solidarity group from publishing its findings. Undeterred, the staff at MSN has proceeded with publication, and the resulting volume will make a useful addition to any reading list that aims to illuminate globalization and its discontents.

    Tehuacan: Blue Jeans, Blue Waters and Worker Rights

    By the Maquila Solidarity Network and the Human and Labour Rights Commission of the Tehuacan Valley

    February 2003

    $10.00    59 pages

    The second volume recently published by MSN, Tehuacan: Blue Jeans, Blue Waters and Worker Rights, would serve as an ideal companion piece on such a reading list. Here, again working in partnership with local human rights activists, MSN staff detail the emergence in Mexico's 

    Tehuacan valley of a major new denim jeans  production centre and the alarming implications this industrial growth has had for workers' rights and health, as well as for the environment. Once again, the text represents an elegant blend of interview material with more general analysis, and once again, the result is informative, thought provoking and useful.

    Both of these texts are highly recommended. (Both can be ordered individually or in bulk from the Maquila Solidarity Network at 606 Shaw Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M6G 3L6. The MSN website, a valuable source of research and commentary on trade and labour issues, can be found at www.maquilasolidarity.org 


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