Fueled by immigrant labor since the massive surge of Jewish and Italian immigrants to New York City during the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, the American garment industry was long a major economic portal to recently arrived immigrants. It was especially important to Jews from the Russian Empire, Italians from the south of their native land, Chinese, Latin Americans, and Southeast Asians. The industry has provided immigrants with jobs, entries into their new culture, and business opportunities.
Before the massive migration of the early twentieth century, most wholesale garments were made in workshops owned by German Jews of earlier immigrations. The Jews who arrived during the early twentieth century already had a long history of garment work in their native countries, largely because Jews observed religious restrictions on certain materials in their clothes, so they preferred to make their own garments. The influx of poor
In 1900, the
Garment factory in Jersey Homesteads (now Roosevelt), New Jersey, in 1936.
Meanwhile, the New York garment industry remained robust. It expanded during the 1920’s, but by the 1930’s other cities in the United States were attracting sizable concentrations of garment manufacturers. By the 1940’s,
Despite the differences in when they arrived, the reasons for their immigration, their prior experiences, and their different cultures,
In 1969, New York City’s economy had a sudden downturn and vacancy rates in industrial buildings soared. In the Lower Manhattan district bordering New York’s
The tremendous number of Asian and Latin American immigrants to the West Coast during the 1970’s and 1980’s created a boom in
Another blow to the garment industry was the
The problem of illegal immigrants became a topic of public discussion, and attempts were made by the federal government to improve border security. However, many U.S. employers were becoming dependent on undocumented workers, who were willing to work for lower pay than American workers. In August of 2007, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a controversial new immigration enforcement policy. It issued a “No-Match” regulation intended to help employees ensure that their workers are legal, and to help the government identify and crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. This new policy caused a great deal of consternation within Los Angeles’s multibillion-dollar garment industry. Some manufacturers threatened to move their operations offshore.
In October of 2007, a U.S. district court judge issued a preliminary injunction that prevented the Department of Homeland Security from carrying out its new policy. The judge who ruled in the case of
In late 2008, when the United States was entering into a severe recession and Congress was debating the implementation of a massive economic stimulus package, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill with a provision to ensure that new jobs go to Americans and not to illegal immigrants.
Bacon, David. Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants. Boston: Beacon Books, 2008. Shows the human side of globalization, exposing the way it uproots people in Latin America and Asia, driving them to emigrate. Gordon, Jennifer. Suburban Sweatshops: The Fight for Immigrant Rights. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2005. A record of the Workplace Project founded by the author in 1992 to help immigrant workers in the underground suburban economy of Long Island, New York. This book discusses new possibilities for labor organizing, community building, and participatory democracy. Green, Nancy L. Immigrants: Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work–A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997. Compelling comparative study of the garment industries in France and the United States that analyzes the garment industry from the point of economic, social, cultural, political, and gender history. Louie, Miriam Ching Yoon. Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take on the Global Factory. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2001. Examination of transnational sweatshops through the eyes of Korean, Chinese, and Mexican women forced to leave their homelands to take exploitative labor jobs in the world’s sweatshops. Woloch, Nancy, ed. Early American Women: A Documentary History, 1700-1900. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1992. Collection of more than seventy-five primary sources, almost all written by women. Each chapter begins with a generic history.
Captive Thai workers
Chinese family associations
International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union
New York City
Triangle Shirtwaist fire