Public Release: 

Textile piecework system called 'new slavery'

Study finds global industrialism fueled by forced labor

University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Before you slip into those jeans made in Swaziland, consider that working conditions in overseas sweatshops have not only helped destroy the U.S. garment industry, but have turned textile workers overseas into the "new slaves" of globalized industrialism.

So says sociologist Piya Pangsapa, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Women's Studies at the University at Buffalo, where she is an adjunct professor of history and Asian studies and directs the Global Citizenship concentration in the Department of Women's Studies.

Pangsapa presented the results of her ethnographic field research, "The Piecework System and 'New Slaves' of the Apparel Industry," on Aug. 14 at the 100th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Philadelphia.

The study is based on research conducted in Thailand from 1998 to 2000 and in-depth interviews with workers in a large textile plant outside the Bangkok metropolitan area.

Pangsapa says that while piece-rate production had always been found in sweatshops and home-work systems in many countries, it has been integrated increasingly into the production processes of large textile and garment factories that once operated on an assembly-line system.

"The transition to piecework means that daily wages and overtime are eliminated," she says. "A textile piece worker laboring six days a week now earns up to $69 U.S. dollars per month. That is less than Thailand's current minimum wage and roughly half of what she earned on the assembly line."

In the piecework systems a worker is paid for each item (pockets, aprons, chiffon saris) she produces, at a rate determined by the difficulty involved. The pay rate for an item may be as little as 30 cents per one hundred pieces or as high as $1 per hundred. Workers compete to get the more difficult work batches to earn more pay.

"The wages are so low," says Pangsapa, "that workers must labor to the limits of their physical capability just to make enough to cover their basic needs."

"Because workers must constantly compete with one another for work, the cooperative, supportive behavior that marked assembly line production has disappeared. The piece-rate system fosters distrust, tension and animosity among the workers," she says. "It produces an unpleasant, often hostile, social environment that corrodes worker cooperation and the possibility of worker mobilization.

"So their hours are very long, pay is poor, they have very little free time off the job, there is much psychological and physical stress, and on top of that, the physical environment is bad," says Pangsapa. "Study subjects complained that physical conditions in the factories are often harsh and dangerous, with cracked walls, no safety features, dirty toilets, poorly ventilated work areas and a lack of drinking water.

"Fewer accommodations to worker health and safety increase profits," she says.

She says the piecework system operates most effectively in environments in which there already are few employment options, such as Third World countries and rural provincial communities.

This new regime of textile production makes already low employment rates even worse, she says.

"It drastically reduces both a company's existing workforce and the number of operating facilities. This reduces overhead costs and allows management to maintain production rates by means that are unlawful even in many Third World countries."

When workers can't get jobs anywhere else, employers can pay less and less while imposing physical, psychological and social methods of control and coercion to maintain production.

"Working under piecework factory conditions can take a heavy toll on workers. Those I interviewed commonly suffer from chronic exhaustion and repetitive strain injuries, bone frailty, recurring urinary tract infections, coughing up blood, kidney failure and extreme psychological stress," Pangsapa says.

"In an attempt to make up the lost wages, they often 'voluntarily' forgo bathroom breaks, eating, sleeping and even getting a drink of water," she says. The study cites examples of workers who labor from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., then from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. the next day, and again from 6 a.m. to noon -- virtually around the clock to rake in as many items as they are physically capable of making.

"Moreover, women in the piecework system -- three-quarters of textile workers are women -- must labor under the added pressure of penalties and fines," she says

"These fines are common. In one factory I studied," Pangsapa says, "a system of monetary fines was imposed that would automatically take out one-fourth of a worker's meager wages to cover anticipated defects. Workers were forced to sign a contract accepting this agreement.

"Given all this, it is clear that the physical, psychological and social consequences of the new structural working conditions imposed in textile plants make them much more oppressive than they have been before.

"Working a disposable labor force to exhaustion, illness and disability for subsistence wages in unsafe conditions is brutal," Pangsapa says, "but when the job in question is the only one available, it binds workers in subjugation and servitude to the factory.

"That is more akin to slavery than to having a job."


The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York. UB's more than 27,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. The university offers the only degrees in law, pharmacy and architecture in the SUNY system, and is the home of the only comprehensive public school of engineering and only school of informatics in New York State.

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