In September 2000, as activists laid siege to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank summit in Prague, South African Finance Minister Trevor Manual pondered the relevance of protesting against a system that felt so inevitable, ‘I know what they are against but have no sense of what they are for’ (Kingsnorth 2012). The anti-sweatshop movement was in full swing; it was part of anti-capitalist social movements at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century that became known as the ‘global justice movement’ under the banner ‘Another World Is Possible’.
Unlike the perceived indecisiveness of much of the anti-capitalist movement at the time, the anti-sweatshop movement remained steadfast in its demands. Issues such as liveable wages, independent worker organization, and collective bargaining remained at the forefront. The problem was not that workers and activists did not know what to fight for – it was how to get it. Achieving these fundamental rights becomes a seemingly insurmountable hurdle under conditions of globalized hypermobile capital. In the garment and footwear sectors, structural barriers, such as vertical disintegration, subcontracted manufacturing, just-in-time production practices, and end of the 2005 MFA, were said to have compounded the difficulties of establishing workers’ rights. This final prediction, which informed a decade of strategy by workers and activists in responding to the state, transnational capital, and domestic firms, would prove to be wrong.
Dynamics of the global garment sector
Between 1995 and 2013, the number of workers at the jobs related to global value chains increased from 296 million to 453 million, with much of this increase occurring before the 2008 financial crisis, demonstrating the profound ways in which GVCs were transforming the global labour market (ILO 2015). Most occurred in Global South countries, directed for Global North consumption Among these, clothing is one of the world's largest and oldest export industries.
The economic geography of the garment industry has been determined principally by retailers as well as brand-name merchandizers, or ‘buyers’, who, through their ability to select suppliers from around the world, concentrate enormous profits and power away from those who produce the goods (Gereffi 1994, 1999). The functionally and geographically disintegrated garment industry is one of the most exploitative, labour-intensive, and feminized sectors in the world economy (Hale and Wills 2011).