Spinning a Sweatshop Story from Chinatown to City Hall

By Michelle Chen Aug 27, 2009

While at least one New York politician is wriggling away from accusations of playing the race card, New York City Councilmember John Liu—a rare Asian American elected official and candidate for city controller—is scrambling to clear the record on his immigrant roots. Liu’s war of words with the New York Daily News began with a campaign ad highlighting Liu’s working-class immigrant background. According to the ad’s narration, Taiwan-born Liu toiled with his mother in a sweatshop—part of a then-thriving garment industry known for Dickensian working conditions. Flashing an image of female garment workers slaving away, the ad touted Liu’s rags-to-riches ascent from Queens to corporate America and then public office: "Working in finance taught Liu how to account for every penny, but working in that sweatshop as a kid taught him why we need to." The Daily News was quick to test Liu’s street cred. The paper discovered, through interviews with Liu’s family, that young John hadn’t really worked at a factory, per se, but merely helped out at home spinning yarn. Liu’s father described his son’s earnings (25 cents per ball of yarn) simply as “allowance." The article amply quoted the different story given by his parents and other community members, heavy on the Chinese accent and awkward grammar:

Liu’s mother met his car on Main St. in Flushing, where she told her son she had mostly worked at home. "Sometime work there couple hours," she said of the factories where she said she did "freelance" work. "Every style, I had to learn there [in the factory]. Then I go home because I had to take care of kids."… John Liu became visibly frustrated, frowning and resting his forehead in his hand. "I’m just trying to prove that 10 years of my life were not my imagination," he said.

Had Liu spun an unremarkable childhood into an Oliver Twist tale? The paper followed up with an editorial denouncing his alleged fudging:

The saddest part of all this is that Liu’s story needed no embellishment. He arrived here from Taiwan at the age of 5, excelled in city public schools, including Bronx High School of Science, and at the State University at Binghamton. All of which is the stuff that American Dreams are made of.

Campaign ads are almost by definition hyperbole, and the Horatio Alger story obviously makes good copy. But before dismissing it as another campaign schtick, the media might want to look a little deeper than “gotcha.” Liu tried to tie his life to a very real system of wage slavery. Although New York’s garment industry has declined in recent years amid global competition and outsourcing, sweatshops were long the lifeblood of the Chinese community and a pillar of the city’s economy. The same immigrant experience continues today, especially in growing sectors like domestic work. The Daily News made Liu’s childhood labor sound like a lemonade stand. But despite common stereotypes, the sweatshop system does not just revolve around the factory floor. Liu’s family was probably typical of many Asian and Latino immigrant households in the industry. The practice of paying women per piece allowed for endless workdays and rampant exploitation. An opportunity to work at home—Liu’s house in Queens apparently had enough space to allow for a knitting machine—would enable mothers to earn extra cash while caring for their kids. This type of “flexibility” formed a cornerstone of sweatshop labor, according to Nancy Green’s Sweatshop USA: "By the early 1990s, union officials estimated that homeworkers constituted 20 percent of the New York City garment workforce, or approximately 30,000 people.” In fact, the “cottage industry” of home-based textile production dates back to the earliest days of industrialization. And it has always been gendered work, with profound impacts on domestic life. In a published response, Liu offered a broader perspective on modern-day manufacturing:

Not all sweatshops look like a scene from ‘Norma Rae’ or other Hollywood movies, with people toiling in neat rows in a factory setting. These factories do exist, but in addition, some sweatshops use overseas labor involving children as young as 6 years old. Others – including the one my mother worked in – combined factory hours with home-based piece work to maximize the exploitation and squeeze the most out of workers: even after leaving the factory, the work never ends. Equally important for sweatshop owners are the weapons of intimidation and shame, which keep parents from admitting they have involved their own children in unlawful work situations. For my parents and so many Asian parents, having worked in a sweatshop is a shameful past and people choose to bury those memories. It’s time we brought them out in the open and let people tell their stories without being subjected to cynical attacks.

Akito Yoshikane at Working In These Times argues that cultural norms could be coloring Liu’s family’s recollections:

the issue could be the result of a cultural stigma in Asian communities in particular, where saving face is important. Liu’s mother and acquaintances would most likely prefer to avoid highlighting their experiences working in substandard conditions.

But the urge to “save face” is not completely to blame for the controversy. The Daily News and many of its readers probably have only a narrow concept of the economics and culture of factory work, making it easy to write off home-based labor as mere child’s play. Liu could seize the sweatshop hooplah as a chance to confront his past on more systemic terms. In his statement, he explained, “For me, it’s not a shameful past… and I remain as committed as ever to exposing and ending the sweatshop system.” Perhaps Liu’s mother’s reticence about her labor experience reflects a sense of shame, but maybe it’s just hardened resignation. Not every factory worker has the resources or political consciousness to develop a Marxist analysis of their role in the global economy; they’re busy putting their kids through school. But with any luck, it’s the next generation that will grow up to challenge the system through political advocacy and community leadership. Beyond Liu’s political ambitions and the media spin, the takeaway here is that the story he told reveals an authentic immigrant experience, the truth of which plays out every day in the quiet struggles that keep the city running. That’s the real stuff dreams are made of. Image: "Sweat Shop Girl" (John Crosley)