Apparel Sourcing Intelligence - Worldwide

For all the onshoring hype – US apparel jobs keep falling

In the April 3 Sourcing Journal Online, I look at the continuing fall in US apparel making jobs.

However much hype gets generated about the alleged onshoring boom, jobs in apparel making have fallen year on year every year since I’ve been in the business. The fall isn’t seriously slowing.

What’s not so often observed, though, is the extraordinary levels of criminality associated with the garment-making industry in rich countries. From the finding ┬áin one UK study that over 70% of garment factories investigated were paying less than half the minimum wage, through fatal accidents to bribery charges: claims by domestic garment industry lobbyists that using onshore factories improves human rights in garment making are completely at odds with the reality in many Western garment companies

There’s no doubt many Western buyers would like to buy more clothes from their home market. But it’s also clear that their price expectations are conditioned by buyers’ Asian experiences. The result is a vicious circle. Too many garment makers rely on immigrant workers, unsure of their rights and legal status and too unskilled in the local language to find out what to do about it. Factory owners cut corners – especially in wages and overtime – and certainly won’t hire locals: allegedly because “they won’t work”, but more likely because they won’t stand for the abuse. Factories blame a skills shortage – but can’t pay enough to keep staff.

If that’s been the problem while jobs were scarce, it’s a problem that’s going to get a lot worse as jobs pick up, especially with entry-level employers like Walmart and McDonalds pushing up their wages.

Much of the bullishness from domestic industry advocates is based on forecasts a few years ago – now clearly misguided – that Asian wages were about to overtake Western ones, once allowance was made for the West’s claimed greater productivity. As far as the garment industry was concerned, there was never any evidence for that.

The only future, I believe, for significant developed-country apparel production is in garments where local manufacture can economically justify workers paid living wages. It’s unrealistic to expect buyers to ensure they’re getting paid properly unless there’s a business case for it. That might be the attraction of a “Made in USA/UK” label to foreign customers, or the benefits of close supervision, or some technological edge.

But it won’t be blind patriotism, and it won’t be even more stories about gross worker abuse.