Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 5, May 2001
Stitching at the Boundaries:
Vietnamese Garment Industry Workers in Transnational Spaces

Mandy Thomas

  1. This paper explores the interfaces between the transnational politics of labour and the experiences of Vietnamese women garment workers both in Vietnam and as migrants to other countries. As the global industries have come to organise much of the contemporary economic system, so too have they crossed national boundaries in search of cheap labour. At the same time enclaves of migrant disadvantage within the multi-ethnic nation-states of the developed world have also provided workers for the manufacture of clothing. In the case of Australia, these workers are mostly home-based and not in factories. In this paper I explore Vietnamese women's different incorporations into the garment industry in various locations – in Australia, in Vietnam, and in American Samoa. In so doing, I provide an analysis of the links between gender, global power relations and the contradictory space of transnational exchange.
  2. There are many studies that focus on the exploitation of women by multinational corporations,[1] but this paper, by contrast, explores the social agency and critical and heterodox perspectives of these women as well as their relationship to the more complex set of constructions surrounding issues of national belonging. I begin by setting out the present characteristics of the global garment industries and go on to explore the gendered and political nature of these features. I then document the modalities through which the experiences of Vietnamese home-based garment industry workers in Australia are affected by these wider political and economic changes and how their presence unsettles notions of national belonging.[2] At the same time I also suggest that because of the international concern directed at the working lives of garment industry workers in Vietnam and Vietnamese nationals abroad, the contrasts between the different situations of Vietnamese workers in Australia and Vietnam reveal some important and unexpected transnational interchanges. I discuss the context of the Nike factories in Vietnam and the garment factory in American Samoa that was recently condemned for human rights abuses of Vietnamese nationals. I suggest that the three different working situations of Vietnamese women in the global garment industry reveal disjunctures in the social transformations brought about by the effects of global capital. While outworkers in Australia express a perceived eruption of exploitative practices into the 'developed' world they also articulate a fluid labour formation which may be tenable and empowering. At the same time the contrast between the formal and the informal economies, and between the developed world and the undeveloped world presents a paradox of boundaries. In each case there is a diminution in the significance of national boundaries and a new articulation of transnational space in which global capital and the international garment industry together create conditions of colonisation as well as advantages for workers everywhere that the global garment industries infiltrate.

    Off-shore and out of mind: global currents in garment manufacture
  3. The manufacture of clothing has historically been crucial to the industrial and economic development of numerous countries. In Britain, for example, 'the development of the textile industry set in motion the Industrial Revolution'.[3] In the last few decades the clothing industry has declined in almost all first world countries, as garment factories have multiplied across the developing world. Fashion and clothing have, as Entwistle argues, 'played a significant role in global relations between nations' and it is increasingly the case that the garment industry is predominantly in the third world, providing the fashion industries of the first world with clothing.[4] Developing countries doubled their share of world clothes exports from thirty per cent in the early 1970s to over sixty per cent by the mid-1990s.[5] Studies of the globalisation of the textile, clothing and footwear industries indicate that the leading country in the manufacture of clothing is China where it is a crucial industry in the economic development process.[6] China exports twenty-nine per cent of the world's garments and is increasing its share yearly. The next largest exporter, Italy, exported just a third of that amount. Although historically a leader in the fashion and garment industries, Italy is declining in importance as the developing economies of Asia and North Africa as well as poorer European countries like Poland, Romania and Turkey become larger exporters of clothing. The clothing industry in the developing countries of Asia, the Pacific, Africa and South America are likely to be crucial to their economic growth in the next decades.
  4. A number of factors account for this shift in clothing manufacture from the first world to the developing world and to the drastic restructuring of this major world industry which presently employs over 7.5 million people worldwide.[7] Unlike many other industries, clothing manufacture is not highly automated nor has technology developed to replace the individual sewer. For this reason production is highly labour intensive and hence the payment to garment workers is crucial for determining the cost of the finished article. The removal of trade barriers and the development of manufacturing in the third world have meant that there is a 'continuing search for greater profit by textile and clothing manufacturers, which depends on finding and exploiting the cheapest labour in developing nations, as well as indigenous immigrant populations at home'.[8] The huge disparity in wage levels worldwide is the driving force behind the globalisation of the garment industry.[9] As the search for cheap labour has moved the garment industry outside the European and North American centres, so has the increasing pace of fashion turnover needed a flexible workforce capable of producing rapidly changing fashions at breakneck speed. In Vietnam, the ever-decreasing time between each new style has meant that the garment industry in Hanoi cannot compete with that in Ho Chi Minh City as the latter is more linked in to international transport lanes and can get orders out quickly. Norlund goes so far as to suggest that 'the penalty for late delivery is so high in the very competitive international garment sector, that it is almost not worthwhile to finish the order in case of delay.'[10] This necessity for speed also means that both managers and workers are put under enormous pressure to complete orders on time.
  5. While the developing world is providing relatively low paid labour for the garment industry, migrant workers in the developed world are employed in a flexible and largely informal garment manufacturing economy where they work in small sweatshops or in their own homes. Considering the links historically between textiles and trade and the more recent enmeshment of clothing manufacture with the transformations in developing countries, the garment industry is a crucial site for the expression of the inherent contradictions and global power relations involved in the processes of globalisation. Internal and international migration are linked to labour markets as the movement of people either occurs because of employment opportunities outside one's place of origin or provides sources of labour not otherwise available in the host society. Saskia Sassen suggests that the twin processes of globalisation and migration perpetuates the impact of colonialism.[11] The inherent othering processes involved in this history, can only be understood 'as a set of processes whereby global elements are localised, international labour markets are constituted and cultures from all over the world are de- and re- territorialised'.[12] These processes locate migration and globalisation 'right at the centre, along with the internationalisation of capital, as a fundamental aspect of globalisation'.[13]

    In the hands of women and the homes of migrants: garment manufacturing in Australia
  6. In Australia, garment industry workers are primarily women working in their own homes. While this feature of clothing production has a long history in Australia, it has intensified over the last decade to a point where outworking has become the defining characteristic of clothing production in Australia. It is estimated that there are some 150,000 outworkers in Australia with 50,000 of these outworkers being in Sydney alone.[14] As the Collins' inquiry stated, 'Outwork is now so prevalent [in the fashion clothing sector] that it is not just a characteristic of the industry, the entire industry is structured around it'.[15] Why this has happened is a complex issue. In the last twenty-five years there has been a shift to off-shore manufacture as new industries have developed in China and elsewhere in transforming economies. At the same time, tariffs have been dramatically scaled down and much industry protection eroded.[16] It has been argued that the industry turned to outworking rather than investing in high technology or becoming more efficient.[17] At present, clothing manufacture in Australian is declining overall with such areas as design, cutting, sewing and finishing outsourced separately to many different individuals and small businesses.[18] For manufacturers employing outworkers, the benefits are that they avoid the expenses of running factories and equipment at the same time as they reduce wages and associated costs such as insurance, sick leave, superannuation and payroll tax.
  7. Outworkers in Australia are predominantly Asian women, mostly Vietnamese and Chinese but also Korean, Lao, Khmer, Indonesian and others. Most of these women say that they began outworking when it was apparent that they would have difficulty gaining other employment because of low levels of English proficiency and their skills not being recognised. Many report on the high stress levels involved in undertaking outwork. There is always some degree of uncertainty about when the next sewing job may come to them and when they do have work, they must complete each delivery very rapidly under sometimes extremely pressing deadlines. This means that women must frequently work through the night to complete orders. The pace of work is so intense that frequently other family members, including children, become involved and there are many occupational and health problems associated with the long hours at a machine in often quite dusty environments.[19] The women are paid very small amounts per item of clothing, which means that the hourly rate is very low and there is no compensation for the money the women pay for equipment. At the same time, it is not unusual for the women not to be paid, or to be paid very late for completed work. There are also some reports of verbal and physical abuse.[20]
  8. During 1999 and 2000 more than one hundred women were interviewed for two separate studies undertaken for the Department of Industrial Relations. Some of the women were contacted through my own networks and some through Asian Women at Work and the NSW TCFUA (Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia). The women were either interviewed in their own homes or in community centres as part of focus group discussions organised by the Union. My interviews with outworkers confirm the remuneration problems associated with the industry and the difficult working lives of outworkers. There are a significant number of outworkers who are pleased with their jobs as they consider it gives them some flexibility with hours, particularly if they have young children at home. However even these outworkers maintain that they are extremely socially isolated and detached from many established social institutions. There is also a disconnection from the world beyond the home and a lack of involvement in the public sphere of Australian contemporary life. The separation of outworkers from wider society is highlighted in the following story told to me by a Vietnamese woman that I have named, Thuy:

      I made garments here in this house for twelve years and last year I gave it up. I gave it up because my family was suffering living in that warzone of deadlines, of a mother working all night, too sore to lift my own children. And now, funny thing is, I don't want to go out anymore. I was like a prisoner on those machines in the house for so many years, and now I can't go out. I don't know why but I just don't want to. My husband does the shopping, and when I want to see people they come here to my house. Okay, sometimes I go out but always with the children or with someone. I'd never go out alone. I have lived in Australia for fourteen years, don't speak English and just don't have a life out there, outside my home'.[21]

  9. Another outworker, Mai, is a lonely woman in her sixties. She has worked sewing clothes at home since she arrived in Australia from Vietnam fifteen years ago. She wants to work outside the home, and has dreams of working in an office at a computer, speaking English well and managing a group of people. At the same time she realises she has little hope of fulfilling these ambitions and she confided in me one day that the only way she really feels alive in Australia is to watch horror movies. Mai watches the Silence of the Lambs and other terrifying thrillers about murder and fear because she says, 'feeling scared makes me feel alive. I dream all the time of my homeland and of being back in my village in Vietnam so watching horror movies is the only way I can feel here in this place right now'.[22]
  10. This suggests that mainstream society, a 'regular job', and speaking English are so unavailable to Mai that she has resorted to watching terrifying films to ground her in her body in the present and to feel 'alive' and move her out of the imaginary space of Vietnam and her past. Mai could only feel grounded in Australia through her experience of being afraid. At the same time her ability to maintain relations with family in Vietnam was becoming increasingly restricted and thus her status in her homeland as a woman in the highly prized transnational space could not be valorised. Mai's story illustrates the dilemma faced by many migrant women in attempting to engage in wider Australian society. Furthermore, relationships which Vietnamese women had with the communist government in their homeland intensifies a level of non-engagement with the governmental bureaucracy. As one woman, that I have named Thao, told me: 'I learnt in Vietnam to keep closed from the government, to rely only on my family, keep my life a secret for myself'.[23] The years of home-based work making garments further accentuates a sense of displacement and separation from the world outside the home.
  11. If governance is the management of goods and populations then outworkers are both inside and outside systems of governance, managed and controlled through economic circumstances to undertake this type of work, yet unable to participate and outside the bounds of governmental engagement. As Zukin would suggest, these women's homes have become liminal spaces, places of both work and home where there is a slippage between global commerce and private domestic space.[24] Just as the diaspora are both within and outside the west, so too are the garment practices liminal. In terms of national belonging, outworkers are unable to obtain the necessary cultural capital to be constituted as 'fully belonging' national subjects.[25] At the same time there are attempts to pass on cultural capital to outworkers in order to incorporate them into the sphere of national belonging. This involves government departments, trade unions and community organisations giving outworkers resources such as English proficiency and different employment opportunities, to increase their rates of pay. However, the occurrence of outworking is still viewed by mainstream media and lobbyists as a national transgression. This is evident in the language of lobbyists campaigning to improve the conditions of outworkers appalled that a liberal democracy like Australia can condone such practices. Campaigns such as Fairwear, for example, speak of the 'exploitation' of these women.[26] In Australia, a country which prides itself on the excellence of its working conditions, the informal labour market of outworking is seen as an aberration. The domestic spaces of outworkers continue to curse the national liberal imaginary of a fair and just society and so challenge national coherence.

    Transnational encounters in clothing manufacture: Nike meets Vietnam
  12. To further explore the paradoxical sets of national imaginaries expressed through the transnational spaces of the global garment industry, I will now describe some aspects of the situation of garment workers working for a transnational company, Nike, in Vietnam. Nike, and its reception in Vietnam, must be situated in the context of the changes that have occurred in Vietnamese society as a whole and in the garment industry in particular. There has been a gradual change from a centrally planned economy to a market economy with the introduction of Doi Moi (Renovation) in 1986. Vietnam remains one of the world's poorest countries, with the average income being around $US400 per year. The population in Vietnam is almost eighty million people with one million entering the labour market each year.[27] With jobs provided by the state fast diminishing, there is a constant demand for work and high unemployment levels in a country where over seventy per cent of the population lives in rural areas.
  13. In this situation of poverty and high unemployment the garment industry has grown spectacularly in recent years. Over the last decade, the garment industry in Vietnam has expanded four-fold and, according to the government's business plan, is expecting massive growth in the foreseeable future.[28] Garment export is one of the biggest earners of foreign income and is gearing up to boost exports, especially to the US. In 2000, Vietnam earned $US1.89 billion from textile and garment exports, and is expected to receive $US2.3 billion in 2001.[29] The garment industry employs 1.6 million people which equates with about twenty-five per cent of all people working in manufacturing.[30] A significant number of Vietnamese garment industry enterprises are joint ventures with foreign firms, most of which are based in Taiwan and South Korea.[31]
  14. The operation of global garment industry capital in Vietnam is exemplified in the case of Nike. It is a contradictory story which adds to the complexity of a transnational exchange. Nike's shoe and clothing factories in Vietnam make Nike the largest single private employer in the country. Nike currently employs more than thirty thousand people – mostly young women in their twenties.[32] In 1997, Nike's labour practices in Asia were the target of criticism from labour groups around the world.[33] Nike was accused of failing to pay workers adequate wages and of employing managers who harassed workers. They were also denounced for the working conditions in the factories which, it was alleged, did not meet appropriate occupational health, safety and environmental standards. The effect on Nike was dramatic. Since the outcry against Nike in 1997, the company has made a huge effort to restore its image. In 1999 USA Today reported that although workers at the Nike factories in Vietnam earn only $US47 per month, conditions had significantly improved.[34] One of the company's most frequent critics, Medea Benjamin of the labour organisation Global Exchange, said there had been significant progress in health and safety issues, and that letting in independent monitors to assess the situation was a big step forward – 'Things are changing for the better'.[35]
  15. In 1997, Vietnam's official press also highlighted cases of abuse by Asian managers working at Nike factoriesin Vietnam – most of which are run by Korean or local managers. What this intermixture of different cultures within a transnational corporation highlights is the autonomy given to regional and local managers and the diverse range of practices by a global company in different local sites. In this case, the idea that Korean management practices may suit Vietnamese conditions was ill-founded and based on the assumption of a uniformity of Asian business practices. Nike had given free rein to Korean managers in an attempt to indigenise US labour practices and make them culturally appropriate, but under international scrutiny Nike was forced to work with local trade unions in Vietnam to reverse the situation. Norlund, reporting on a Korean owned supplier for Nike in Vietnam, states:

      Today the company can boast of having the best environment conditions of the shoe factories, because of a new type of water-based glue invented by Nike. Training, education, and cultural programmes for the Koreans to learn the Vietnamese culture and for Vietnamese to learn the Korean culture have taken place, there are sports activities, special treatment of pregnant women who are not allowed to work in polluted air etc. A grievance council is even set up, where the employees can deliver grievance messages.[36]

    Here, the local trade union had allied with Nike to assist the workers under Korean management. The difficulties for workers had never been a clear-cut case of third world workers throwing off the shackles of first world capitalist imperialism – in practice it was a much more culturally layered and complex situation. As Ong has argued, if there is an underlying local norm of patriarchal authority, such as is often found in societies like Korea, this will articulate with corporate hierarchies and reinforce the power of the management over workers.[37] Transnational capitalism has, in this way, often been able to intensify existing gender inequalities. In the case of Nike, the differences in management style between the Korean managers and the US ones have led to conflict of a different sort, as expressed in the international outcries over the treatment of workers by the Korean sub-contractors and the subsequent implementation of US-influenced management policies.
  16. A further aspect of the impact of Nike upon Vietnam is that the company creates many jobs and there is considerable prestige given to workers who are employed there.[38] Nike in Vietnam now provides conditions for workers that are envied by those working in state-owned enterprises. Relative to their society, the Nike workers in Vietnam are considerably better paid and with better conditions than many Vietnamese outworkers in Australia. While this image of Nike would seem only positive, some in the overseas Vietnamese community view Nike's entry into the country as supporting a corrupt and oppressive regime. Furthermore, when the group, Vietnam Labour Watch (organised by Vietnamese-Americans), complained about Nike practices in Vietnam, the criticisms were thought to be politically motivated by Vietnamese commentators in Vietnam itself. The various readings of Nike as either an exploitative global company or a generous organisation playing a role in the democratisation processes in Vietnam are highlighted by the comments of a Nike official in a letter to the Vietnamese trade union newspaper Laodong in which he suggested that the campaign against Nike was motivated by political objectives to destabilise the country.[39] This aspect of the response to Nike's presence in Vietnam, adds further complexity to an easy equation between Nike and a global capitalism that is involved in exploiting third world workers. What we witness, in the Vietnamese-American protests against Nike in Vietnam, is a case of the anti-communist overseas Vietnamese elites asserting their rejection of doing business in communist Vietnam as from their perspective doing so would prop up an already unsupportable regime. Ashley Carruthers argues, such protests are also an example of a 'diasporic culture which has already been deterritorialised by homeland affiliations attempting to assert its hegemony over the emergent transnational social space which these affiliations constitute'.[40] Both the Vietnamese diaspora and the lobbyists against Nike[41] are to some extent involved in a form of colonising and civilising mission in Vietnam which is still viewed through the discourses of underdevelopment. The Vietnamese anti-communist lobby group in exile see Nike as a buttressing a corrupt and evil regime and a failing economy by providing employment opportunities to a group who would be desperately poor without it. At the same time international labour organisations represent the Vietnamese as needing 'protection' from the multinational might of the likes of a company like Nike. Here, diasporic political aspirations and the growth of global capital are played out through Vietnamese women workers.
  17. To further complicate the situation of cultural exchange and global capital in Vietnam, it has been suggested that it may be overseas Vietnamese who are involved in the least regulated sections of the garment industry – home-based businesses run by relatives of the labour force.[42] As Carruthers suggests, 'the state tends to arrogate the abuse of labour to overseas investors, [but] workers in FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) enterprises are in fact protected by minimum wage and labour conditions in a way that workers in domestic private sector are not'.[43] What is suggested here is that large foreign investors in the garment industry are highly regulated and formalized, but the informal family economies based around money sent by overseas relatives to set up small businesses is well hidden and therefore open to abuse and poor conditions for the workers.
  18. While there has been much victim-oriented analysis of women workers in the third-world,[44] what is apparent from the above arguments is that the issue of exploitation of women workers in Vietnam, Australia or, indeed, the US is not clear-cut, and the entire array of contexts for women's economic and political location must be seen in the full domestic, national and global arenas. An examination of how the changes in Nike in Vietnam were initiated reveals that in each case the women workers themselves took action into their own hands. In one case, several women who had been beaten by a Korean supervisor went to a local Labour Federation and complained.[45] As Norlund reports, negotiations over this situation eventually led to the establishment of a full-time trade union staff at the factory.[46] In 1997, thousands of workers in Nike factories in Vietnam went on strike and rioted against conditions.[47] The Sweatshop Watch group reported that about three thousand workers were involved in the walkout – the largest in recent history in Vietnam. This was only possible in a country where dissent is frequently quelled because the antagonist was a foreign company with foreign managers. At the same time as workers were given a voice in the local Vietnamese press and the managers condemned for the appalling working conditions at the factories, international labour watch groups pounced on Nike as the evil multinational engaged in practices that would never be permitted in the USA. Again, the actions of women workers locally were incorporated into the political agendas of a range of players from international labour organisations to overseas Vietnamese political activists.

    'Made in the USA': Vietnam nationals in American Samoa
  19. To add to the complexity of Vietnamese women's involvement in the garment industry is the case of Vietnamese women garment workers in American Samoa. In March 2001, several women working at the Korean-owned Daewoosa garment factory in Samoa escaped from the compound and sought assistance.[48] Within days, international labour organisations were notified and the Vietnamese Embassy was also informed. The story of these women attracted the attention of international labour watch organisations and the company employing the women has since gone on trial. The Korean company is accused of human rights violations, physical abuse of workers, withholding money and providing substandard food in crowded unhealthy housing. The young Vietnamese women working at the factory had paid recruitment fees of up to US$5000 for the opportunity to work at the Samoan factory and because American Samoa is a U.S. territory, the clothes these workers sew carry 'Made in the USA' labels.[49] The workers sewed garments carrying the J.C. Penney, Sears and MV Sport labels, among others. The organisation, Vietnam Labour Watch, was involved in producing a report on the working and living conditions of the women at the factory, and condemned both the Vietnamese government and the Korean owner for the situation at the site. The mobilisation of protestors against Nike in Vietnam and the Daewoosa factory in American Samoa 'demonstrates the way in which an exile national imaginary can be translated into social identities and political action'.[50]
  20. What these cases also reveal is the manner in which Vietnamese women workers resist difficult working situations and can strategically seek assistance from organisations which might help improve their conditions. Norlund, in her report on trade unions in the garment industry in Vietnam, found that women working in this industry in Ho Chi Minh City actively participate in the union and are otherwise involved in various manoeuvres to upgrade their salaries and conditions.[51] In both cases, women workers themselves were the ones to initiate transformations in their workplaces. At the same time it is clear that resistance is often an uneasy path for women and that forms of control exist in workplaces and in society at large which work against the solidarity of women workers. Furthermore, local unions and international labour organisations usually intervene only after initial complaints are made to them by workers themselves. The situation in both Vietnam and American Samoa demonstrate, however, that Vietnamese women are not inactive in changing their work relations, and are not always subordinated by industrial enterprises.

    Gender and global garment manufacture
  21. By exploring the complexities of gender in the garment and fashion industries, it is clear that women are not just passive victims of exploitative labour practices, but they actively engage in struggle at many levels and at the margins of power both locally and globally. In the last decades, there has been an increasing feminisation of the transnational industrial workforce, but this has coincided with what Ong has described as new forms of 'cultural struggle'.[52] The garment industry, with its particular relations of production that historically have been centred on women working at sewing machines, has both concretised and re-organised gender relations in the discursive arena. Not only are Vietnamese women influenced by their own cultural values about women's roles, but they are also in a broader global regime in which garment industry work is both highly gendered and ethnicised. Historically, needlework in western societies has been thought to be feminine work, devalued and unsuitable for men.[53] That women are often those selected to be the labourers in the garment industry replicates gender and ethnic stereotyping of Asian women as 'naturally' more suited to this type of work. There are numerous popular conceptions of women in the clothing industry such as women have 'nimble fingers', 'fine eyesight' and as workers are 'more docile', 'willing to work long hours', 'don't need to earn as much as men as they will be taken care of at home', 'able to undertake repetitive work' and 'uncomplaining'.[54] These endemic popular views have led to low-paid labour being feminised, which is, as Elson suggests, a situation perpetuated by governments in developing countries wishing to attract foreign capital into garment production.[55] While the myths about female labour have undoubtedly led to numerous labour practices which reinforce the same ideologies, women have also used such views for their own advantage, particularly in gaining employment where there are few opportunities for both men and women.
  22. As a result of Vietnam's struggling economy and high unemployment levels, garment workers in Vietnam are seen as fortunate and relatively well-paid in terms of the national income levels.[56] In Australia, while Vietnamese outworkers are paid very poorly in terms of award rates, women I have interviewed very often reported that the work gave them a degree of autonomy and independence when the formal labour market was so difficult for them to enter.[57] In both Vietnam and in the diaspora, outworking can enable Vietnamese women to be the main breadwinners in families. In many families I interviewed in Sydney, Vietnamese women outworkers were often the sole income earners in a family. When male members of the family do work, it is often in the garment industry too, either as drivers, as contacts between the fashion houses and the outworkers (known as 'middlemen'), or assisting their wives. In most families I met, the woman's role as an income earner was highly respected. In this sense, in the diaspora, outworking was a continuation of the women's important historical role in Vietnam as traders and their central involvement in commercial activities. Indeed, often women control the family finances and the situation of many garment workers is that their work has allowed them a sense of financial independence. While not free to dispose of family income however they wished, their contribution to finances gave them considerable financial autonomy.[58]
  23. At the same time, the informal nature of the economy of outworkers permits these women to transgress mainstream notions of acceptable work practices: the workplace, taxation and income reporting. These transgressions have contradictory effects, confining the women to chronic low labour market status at the same time as enabling many of them to explore a range of lifestyle and other informal income-generating activities outside the regulating institutions of the state. These conflictual responses can be framed as a negotiation between social justice and social difference – a negotiation which is taking place for the most part in the families involved in outworking and not in a wider political arena. What is apparent in any exploration of the gender relations involved in the garment industry is the widening gap between Vietnamese women's everyday experiences of their work and the popular and political discourses about it.

    At home with sewing machines: the temporal articulations of outworking
  24. While I have examined some components of the muted but still present political activism of Vietnamese workers in Vietnam and Samoa, the actions of Vietnamese women outworkers in Australia are rarely overtly political. The privacy, secrecy and separation of outworkers from wider society can be seen as strategies often employed to self-protect and empower. Following on the ideas of Lefebrve and Edward Soja, these struggles for difference can open up a new domain, and a radically different form of citizenship can be defined and realised.[59] This citizenship is, I would suggest, based upon a spatial layering of individuals often in the same household, in which they may be more or less peripheral to government regulation, to voting, to banking etc. This nested layering is then not about whether one is at the centre or periphery of power but rather whether or not one might have the possibility of radical alterity and distinctiveness. Furthermore, if one examines the temporal aspects of the industry in Australia, it is possible to envisage another of the transformative social aspects of Vietnamese women's work as outworkers. It is too early to determine how working in the garment industry may or may not change the lives of the children of workers in Vietnam, but it is possible to uncover some of the temporalities of outwork in Australia. The most striking temporal aspect of the migrant experience of garment industry work is that the children of outworkers rarely become outworkers themselves.
  25. A new drama, Delivery Day, by Vietnamese-Australian writer Khoa Do was, in April 2001, screened at the Art Gallery of NSW.[60] The film was about the world of home-based garment industry workers in Sydney. The story focuses on the life of a young girl, Trang, whose mother and extended family are involved in clothing production in their home. It deals with the difficulties of bridging the gap between non-English speaking migrants' efforts to make a living and their children's well-being and childhood aspirations to belong to and be accepted by the wider society. After the film, I talked with a group of young Vietnamese-Australian university students who had seen it and to Khoa Do himself. All spoke of their families' involvement in outworking and the necessity of letting more people know of the sociological reality of growing up in a family which was involved in this type of low paid, highly stressful work. What was noticeable about this group of young people was that they were all university students who wanted to make a contribution to society – an expressed desire that arose from their childhood experiences of social disadvantage. Witness the story of Khoa Do which reveals the impact of the work of his mother in the garment industry,

      When I was ten I remember lying in the back of a van as my uncle drove from Sydney to Melbourne to deliver a batch of garments. I remember lying on top of a huge bundle of yellow shirts, and trying to do my homework as the van sped at 120kmh. Three weeks later I had parent-teacher interviews at school. I remember not telling my mum to come because she couldn't speak English ... how embarrassing if my friends were ever to find out ... [The film] Delivery Day is based on my childhood experiences, as a Vietnamese Australian youth growing up in Sydney's western suburbs ... many afternoons were spent juggling algebra with labelling blouses in mum's factory ... I recall seeing my mother and her friends work at sewing machines in a garage from 6am till ten at night for five dollars an hour, and they've been doing it every day they've been in Australia. I recall all the conversations they have about going to markets and buying fresh duck eggs, or how they believe leaving a sewing machine in a certain area will bring bad luck, or the stress they undergo when garments are running late. Despite everything, there is so much life in them ... I remember watching Neighbours and Home and Away, and realising that life for many of us is so completely different to this. I realised that the migrant story needed to be told, especially since it was such a universal story, of overcoming tremendous obstacles and challenges only to be faced with an uncertain future.[61]

  26. Just after the screening of this film, I was shown a new magazine which is distributed free in Sydney. The magazine is called FAAN, and calls itself 'Australia's Premiere Asian Lifestyle Magazine'. Aimed at a young English-speaking Asian-Australian audience, the magazine is the first of its kind. It is filled with issues related to being Asian in Australia including articles such as 'Asian Parents', an interview with Actor and Cantopop star, Tony Leung, and 'Asiatainment' with music and film reviews. While reading the magazine, what caught my eye was an advertisement for a sewing machine – a Singer that was advertised as having 'stunning new technology'. The blurb read, 'The future of sewing has arrived in the form of the new SINGER IZEK! This revolutionary new machine from Singer, integrated with Nintendo Game Boy technology provides loads of amazing features and an impressive degree of user friendliness, all wrapped up in an ultra-cool design'.[62] Several things struck me about this advertisement. Firstly, one would never find an advertisement for a sewing machine in any mainstream youth magazine in Australia, and secondly, it combined certain features which were presumably aimed at appealing particularly to young 'Asian-Australians' – its game boy attachment and focus on 'gadgetry' and its appeal to sewing 'enthusiasts'. When I showed the magazine to a young Vietnamese woman she said, 'Every Vietnamese kid my age knows all about sewing machines from seeing our parents or other relatives involved in this industry. Its totally normal to think of a sewing machine as part of household furniture'.[63]

    Figure 1. The one page advertisement for a Singer sewing machine in FAAN magazine, April 2001.
    Both the film Delivery Day and FAAN's advertisement confirmed for me many characteristics of outworking that I had noticed when undertaking ethnographic studies of outworkers in Sydney in 1999-2000. Sewing machines are ubiquitous in Vietnamese households. Outworking is so common in the Vietnamese household in Australia that it has become a 'culturally' significant activity. While children of outworkers rarely become outworkers themselves, for many it provides the basis for career decisions later in their lives, and constitutes the background to a second-generation Vietnamese-Australian consciousness.

  27. The continuing sense of debt that a child has towards parents in a Vietnamese family has led to a situation where the children of outworkers very frequently feel a moral responsibility to not only care for their mothers but also to counter what they perceive to be the social injustice of outworking. In folktales and everyday expressions families bring to the surface the notion that it is the responsibility of children to allay the suffering of their mothers.[64] The moral debt (on) to one's mother is reinforced also through the veneration of dead relatives through ancestor worship in which one demonstrates the debt to one's ancestors for providing one's life and fortunes. For these cultural reasons, the lives of women outworkers may have rather profound impacts upon their children and a strong temporal dimension.
  28. Pettman argues that images of migrant women 'call up a range of images and associations, as the most exploited (in the labour market and at home) and most oppressed (at home) women in Australia, besides Aboriginal women'.[65] The representation of migrant women as the passive victims, and also as the most 'exploitable' is, however, contradicted by the history of the industry as well as by the stories of the Vietnamese women outworkers themselves. The historic record of the textile and garment industry reveals many incidents of resistance and struggle against abuse and exploitation.[66] As Andrew Ross notes, 'because these industries have seen some of the worst labor excesses, they have also been associated with historic victories for labor, and hold a prominent symbolic spot on the landscape of labor iconography'.[67] It is clear that home-based garment workers in Australia find barriers to changing their situation: because of lack of English proficiency, social isolation, poverty and difficulty in accessing information which could assist them. Even so, there are some women who make use of the limited resources they have for the benefit of themselves and their families. In these cases, the non-participation of outworkers in life outside the home may, in some cases, be a deliberate decision on their part to avoid the gesturing of a liberal society to democratise workplaces, to avoid the fetishisation of democratic ideals which to many of these women seem misplaced and unrealistic. As one woman told me, 'My life is good, my family eat well, have time together, we have many ways of getting money here and there, all sorts of ways, not criminal at all, but the government is always wanting me to write everything down, and I refuse to – I'm not doing anything wrong, but I am made to feel it is wrong to work like this'.[68] Many women I spoke with engage in meaningful political acts such as hiding income from spouses or government, sharing work with their extended families when the pressure is too much, choosing their moments of societal participation and, importantly, having a direct impact upon their children and families in containing outworking to one generation. These responses can be framed as a negotiation between the desire for social justice and the desire for social difference – a negotiation which is taking place for the most part in the families involved in outworking and not in a wider political arena.

  29. Given the articulation of outworking to wider sociopolitical orders, I have here attempted to unravel the particular characteristics of the experiences of women outworkers, and examine the entanglement of garment work with international labour relations, migration and the gendered colonial orders of the global political regime. What a comparison of the garment industry in different sites highlights is the uneven sets of power relations formed through the dual effects of migration and globalisation. Saskia Sassen has argued that the spaces of the economy of global capitalism have led to an 'unmooring' and a 'disembedding of identities' from purely local and national attachments.[69] This would definitely appear to be the case in that Vietnamese clothing workers in Australia disrupt notions of where they 'belong' in the national imaginary just as Nike workers in Vietnam and Vietnamese nationals working for Daewoosa in American Samoa reframe their identities through their work in transnational space. Soja suggests that 'the geography and history of capitalism is a complex social process which creates a constantly evolving historical sequence of spatialities'.[70] The move towards highly flexible and dispersed workforces has enhanced the mobility of those who already have economic advantage and social capital at the same time as it has enforced a chronic domestication upon those who already suffer social and economic immobility. While industries like telecommunications have been revolutionised and support highly mobile groups of workers, the garment industry has been slow to incorporate technological developments which 'have not eliminated the basic unit of production, the woman at a sewing machine'.[71] It is Vietnamese women at their sewing machines at different sites around the globe who reveal the complex new redefinition of boundaries created through global capital which disarranges the categories 'first world' and 'third world'. Although the categories were never unproblematic, they provided a sort of socio-geographic division which has now been replaced by a complicated web of centres and peripheries, of sites of power and sites of resistance.
  30. Because of these new spatialities and social processes I have aimed at exploring not just the Vietnamese abroad or the garment industry in Vietnam but rather the transnational flows between them. The locations of Vietnamese garment workers in the global economy are part of a set of new relations of capital and power which are founded on political as well as gendered and ethnic difference. These new relations have been the result of transitions in the Vietnamese economy, migratory patterns out of the country and a volatile world clothing market. The spatio-geographic circumstances of Vietnamese women's employment in the garment industry expresses abstract political relations. The location of these women is simultaneously at the margins of the global economies, but it is also at the centre of industrial change and regulation as the women are continually subverting the established order. The effect of rethinking the relations of power involved in outworking is to find alternative visions of the position of these women.
  31. By mapping transnational relations in the process of thinking through the fashion industry, it is possible to reconceptualise the spaces of capitalism in what bell hooks would describe as a space of 'radical openness'.[72] This space is one in which Vietnamese women's actions disrupt any easy understandings of space and politics. The spatialities of global capital have allowed Vietnamese women garment workers both subjection and empowerment through their involvement in counter-hegemonic cultural and political practices. Aiwha Ong suggests that women do not need to be schooled in labour laws and theory to be 'capable of making alternative interpretations based on their own visceral experiences and cultural traditions'.[73] As Keith and Pile have argued, multinational capital creates a type of 'schizo-space' which both limits and makes possible workers' struggles, where 'old loyalties of class and gender and race interrupt, disrupt, recombine, fuse'.[74] Vietnamese women are in important sites of resistance in this new 'world space of multinational capital'[75] and are at the forefront of new social movements in which the loyalties of gender, class and nation are radically interrogated by those in the liminal spaces of power. Here, the overflow of the local into the global and the reverse allows for a reconstitution of national belonging and the emergence of continuous border crossings.


    [1] See Mohanty's reference to these: C.T. Mohanty, 'Cartographies of Struggle: Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism' in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, ed. C.T. Mohanty, A. Russo, and L. Torres, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991, p. 29.

    [2] The information on outworking is based upon a study I undertook with the Centre for International Economics (CIE) for the Department of Industrial Relations (DIR). The outcome of the study was a report Behind the Label: Economic Appraisal of a strategy for outworkers in the NSW clothing industry (1999). Although the study was conducted in collaboration with both CIE and DIR, the opinions in this paper are mine and may not be shared with either group. Information in the present paper was also gained through another study I have undertaken, an evaluation of a training program for Vietnamese women outworkers. The training program was an Australian National Committee on Refugee Women (ANCORW) pilot project to assist Vietnamese women who were working as outworkers in the textiles and clothing industry. The project ran from June 1997 to May 1998, and the aim was 'to empower Vietnamese women outworkers with the skills and knowledge to be able to manage their own business or career pathways and thus have greater control over their incomes, working conditions and lives' (in M. Thomas, Report on Vietnamese Outworkers' Project, for ANCORW. DIR: Sydney, 2000, p. 1). Again, the opinions in this paper are mine and may not be shared by the groups involved.

    [3] J. Entwistle, The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory, Cambridge and Oxford: Polity Press, 2000, p. 208.

    [4] Entwistle, The Fashioned Body, p. 208.

    [5] International Labour Organisation, Globalization of the Footwear, Textiles and Clothing Industries, Geneva, 1996, p. 6.

    [6] International Labour Organisation, Globalization of the Footwear, Textiles and Clothing Industries, p. 6.

    [7] A. Panagariya, M.G. Quibria and N. Rao, The Emerging Global Trading Environment and Developing Asia, Manila: Asian Development Bank, 1996, p. 6.

    [8] Entwistle, The Fashioned Body, p. 208.

    [9] A. Ross (ed.), No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade and the Rights of Garment Workers, London: Verso, 1997, p. 251.

    [10] I. Norlund, Survey of Working, Living and Trade Union Conditions in Foreign and Private Companies in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang: Textile, Garment and Shoe Industries in Vietnam, Final Report, Project between Vietnam General Confederation of Labour and the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions, Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2000, p. 22.

    [11] S. Sassen, 'Identity in the Global City: Economic and Cultural Encasements', in The Geography of Identity, ed. P. Yeager, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996, pp. 131-51, p. 141.

    [12] Sassen, 'Identity in the Global City: Economic and Cultural Encasements', in The Geography of Identity, p. 141.

    [13] Sassen, 'Identity in the Global City: Economic and Cultural Encasements', in The Geography of Identity, p. 141.

    [14] Evatt Foundation, Reforming Homework, A Statistical Profile and the NSW Code of Practice: A Report for the NSW Minister for Public Works and Services, Sydney: Industry Commission 1997, The Textiles, Clothing and Footwear Industries, vols 1 and 2, Canberra: AGPS, p. xi.

    [15] Senate Economic References Committee 1996 Inquiry, Outworkers in the Garment Industry (Collins Inquiry), Canberra: Commonwealth Government, 1996, p. 20.

    [16] Department of Industrial Relations, Behind the Label: The NSW Government Clothing Outworkers Strategy, Issues Paper, vol. 1, NSW: DIR, 1999.

    [17] A. Greig, 'Sub-contracting and the Future of the Australian Clothing Industry', in Journal of Australian Political Economy 29, 1992:40-62.

    [18] Industry Commission, The Textiles, Clothing and Footwear Industries 2, Canberra: AGPS, 1997, pp. B.8-9.

    [19] C. Mayhew and M. Quinlan, Outsourcing and Occupational Health and Safety: A comparative study of factory-based and outworkers in the Australian TCF Industry, UNSW Studies in Australian Industrial Relations, Sydney: Industrial Relations Research Centre, 1998.

    [20] S. Weller, TCF Industry Study Working Paper 4/98: 'A Glimpse at Clothing Outwork', Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Melbourne, unpublished monograph, 1998.

    [21] All names used in this paper are pseudonyms to protect the identities of those who shared their stories with me. All but one of the interviews for this paper took place in 1999 or 2000 in the homes of the women who live in south-west Sydney. The other interview took place in the Cabramatta Library. Some of the interviews took place with the organisational and translation assistance of Thuy Ai Ho from the organisation, Asian Women at Work. Other interviews were undertaken by myself.

    [22] Discussion with outworker, November 1999.

    [23] Discussion with outworkers, November 1999.

    [24] S. Zukin, 'Postmodern urban landscapes: mapping culture and power', in Modernity and Identity, ed. S. Lash and J. Friedman, Oxford: Blackwell, 1992, pp. 221-47, p. 52.

    [25] G. Hage, White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society, Sydney: Pluto Press, 1998.

    [26] This is evident in the Fairwear campaign. For example, 'The Fair Wear Campaign addresses the gross exploitation of workers who make clothing at home in the Australian community. It is an effective way for consumers to respond to this injustice in Australia from the site.

    [27] Norlund, Survey of Working, Living and Trade Union Conditions in Foreign and Private Companies in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang: Textile, Garment and Shoe Industries in Vietnam, p. 12.

    [28] Bui Xuan Khu, April 3, 2001, 'Development for Vietnam's Textile and Garment Industry', Seminar speech by Deputy Minister of Industry and General Director of Vinatex, Vietnam's textile and garment industry corporation, available on Vinatex website, visited 17th May 2001.

    [29] Vietnamese News Agency, April 2, 2001.

    [30] See the site Textileweb for more government information on the garment industry.

    [31] Norlund, Survey of Working, Living and Trade Union Conditions in Foreign and Private Companies in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang: Textile, Garment and Shoe Industries in Vietnam, p. 1.

    [32] Associated Press Newswires, March 28, 2001.

    [33] 'Nike Slams Vietnam Labour Critics', BBC News Online, Jan 21, 1999.

    [34] 'Nike's image problem - After global outcry, company makes some strides to improve', USA Today, Oct 4, 1999.

    [35] Los Angeles Times, April 18, 1999, p. C1.

    [36] Norlund, Survey of Working, Living and Trade Union Conditions in Foreign and Private Companies in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang: Textile, Garment and Shoe Industries in Vietnam, p. 58.

    [37] Aihwa Ong, 'The gender and labour politics of postmodernity', Annual Review of Anthropology 20, 1991:279-85, p. 289.

    [38] Personal communication, Tran Thi Que, Institue of Social Sciences, Vietnam, January, 2001.

    [39] , 'Nike Slams Vietnam Labour Critics', BBC News Online, Jan 21, 1999.

    [40] A. Carruthers, 'Exile and Return: Deterritorialising National Imaginaries in Vietnam and the Diaspora', unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Sydney: Sydney University, 2001, p. 22.

    [41] Some of the groups involved in lobbying Nike include Sweatshop Watch, Vietnam Labour Watch and groups at the sites The Socialist Equality Party and Workers' World. Other overseas campaigns to improve conditions of workers in the garment industry can be found at the Department of Industrial Relations outworkers home page.

    [42] Norlund, Survey of Working, Living and Trade Union Conditions in Foreign and Private Companies in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang: Textile, Garment and Shoe Industries in Vietnam.

    [43] Carruthers, Survey of Working, Living and Trade Union Conditions in Foreign and Private Companies in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang: Textile, Garment and Shoe Industries in Vietnam, p. 219, footnote.

    [44] Mohanty, 'Cartographies of Struggle: Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism', in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, p. 29.

    [45] Vietnam News Agency, Feb 20, 2001.

    [46] Norlund, Survey of Working, Living and Trade Union Conditions in Foreign and Private Companies in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang: Textile, Garment and Shoe Industries in Vietnam.

    [47] 'Nike Slams Vietnam Labour Critics', BBC News Online, Jan 21, 1999.

    [48] Vietnam News Agency, Feb 20, 2001.

    [49] Vietnam News Agency, Feb 20, 2001.

    [50] Carruthers, Survey of Working, Living and Trade Union Conditions in Foreign and Private Companies in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang: Textile, Garment and Shoe Industries in Vietnam, p. 23.

    [51] Norlund, Survey of Working, Living and Trade Union Conditions in Foreign and Private Companies in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang: Textile, Garment and Shoe Industries in Vietnam.

    [52] Ong, 'The gender and labour politics of postmodernity', Annual Review of Anthropology, p. 281.

    [53] Entwistle, The Fashioned Body, p. 146.

    [54] See Entwistle, The Fashioned Body p. 213; Norlund, Survey of Working, Living and Trade Union Conditions in Foreign and Private Companies in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang: Textile, Garment and Shoe Industries in Vietnam, p. 43.

    [55] D. Elson, 'Nimble fingers and other fables', in W. Chapkis and C. Enloe (eds), Of Common Cloth: Women in the Global Textile Industry, Transnational Institute, 1984.

    [56] Norlund, Survey of Working, Living and Trade Union Conditions in Foreign and Private Companies in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang: Textile, Garment and Shoe Industries in Vietnam.

    [57] See D.G. Marr, 'The 1920s' Women's Rights Debate in Vietnam', Journal of Asian Studies 35, 3, 1976:371-89; S. O'Harrow, 'Vietnamese Women and Confucianism: Creating Spaces from Patriarchy', in 'Male' and 'Female' in Developing Southeast Asia, ed. W.J. Karim, Oxford: Berg, 1995, pp. 161-80.

    [58] See D.G. Marr, 'The 1920s' Women's Rights Debate in Vietnam', Journal of Asian Studies 35, 3, 1976:371-89; S. O'Harrow, 'Vietnamese Women and Confucianism: Creating Spaces from Patriarchy', in 'Male' and 'Female' in Developing Southeast Asia, pp. 161-80.

    [59] H. Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford, UK; Cambridge, Mass., USA: Blackwell, 1991; E.W. Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other Real-and-Imagined Places, Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1996.

    [60] The film Delivery Day, written by Khoa Do and produced and directed by Jane Manning, is to be screened on SBS, 15 June, 2001, 8:30pm, as part of the Hybrid Life Series about the second generation migrant experience.

    [61] Khoa Do, 'Delivery Day: Official Writer's Statement', in Looking In, Reaching Out, ed. T.T. and M.H., Sydney: Mosaic Publications, 2001, p. 23.

    [62] FAAN Magazine, vols 1-2 (April 2001):57.

    [63] Discussion with Thao Nguyen, April 2001.

    [64] O'Harrow, 'Vietnamese Women and Confucianism: Creating Spaces from Patriarchy', in 'Male' and 'Female' in Developing Southeast Asia, pp. 161-80.

    [65] J. Pettman, Living in the Margins: Racism, Sexism, and Feminism in Australia, North Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1992, p. 43.

    [66] See Entwistle, The Fashioned Body, p. 216.

    [67] A. Ross, (ed) No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade, and the Rights of Garment Workers, London: Verso, 1997, p. 11, cited in Entwistle, The Fashioned Body, p. 216.

    [68] Discussion with outworker, May 2000.

    [69] S. Sassen, 'Identity in the Global City: Economic and Cultural Encasements' in The Geography of Identity, ed. P. Yeager, p. 131.

    [70] E. Soja, Postmodern Geographies, London: Verso, 1989, p. 127.

    [71] Entwistle, The Fashioned Body, p. 216.

    [72] b. hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics, London: Turnaround, 1991, p. 149.

    [73] Ong, 'The gender and labour politics of postmodernity', Annual Review of Anthropology 20, (1991):279-85, p. 298.

    [74] M. Keith, and S. Pile, 'Introduction' in Place and the Politics of Identity, ed. M. Keith and S. Pile, London and New York: Routledge, 1993, pp. 1-40, pp. 2-3.

    [75] F. Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London: Verso, 1991, p. 413.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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