The missed connections of industry policy: A TCF industry case study

Caroline Alcorso, University of Sydney

Michael Webber and Sally Weller Refashioning the Rag Trade: Internationalising Australia’s Textiles, Clothing and Footwear Industries Sydney: UNSW Press, 2001 ISBN 0-86840-540-X (paperback) RRP $55.00.

This is an immensely valuable book. It’s a dense 377 pages of statistics, analysis and policy description outlining how and why Australia’s textiles, clothing and footwear (TCF) industries have changed so dramatically during the last 30 years. The book is a masterful, comprehensive and detailed account of many different dimensions of industry change—the development of retail hegemony over clothing production chains, government intervention strategies, the growth of an internationalised industry, the jobs lost, who lost them, and what happened to TCF workers in the process of change. It is equally a book for the industrial relations community as for economists, and definitely a book for those interested in labour markets, globalisation and the role of the nation state.

The book is based on:

  • secondary statistical data (the most useful of which is unpublished Census data from the 1986, 1991 and 1996 censuses),
  • interviews with industry leaders and specialists, and
  • a four-year longitudinal study of the impact of tariff reductions on 605 retrenched workers interviewed between 1991 and 1996 (this study was conducted by a broader group of researchers first for the Federal Government (Office of Labour Market Adjustment) and then continued with Australian Research Council funding).

The overall story they tell is of the cost of industry restructuring on workers—the huge personal costs of unemployment on an aging workforce, one third of which has never returned to the workforce, and the social costs to communities whose economies suffered as a result. These are costs, the authors argue, that were never adequately taken into account in the numerous cost-benefit analyses and government reviews of the industry during the 1980s and 90s. It was simply assumed that, once they had been re-skilled, displaced workers would move into other areas of industry. Webber and Weller, however, argue ‘that is not how labour markets work’ (p207). Many middle-aged migrant workers did not appeal to employers in the growth areas of tourism or hospitality, even after 12 months of retraining and for some a further 12 months of English language classes. (It is ironic that the arguments used in 2000 within the NSW Government to reject Minster Shaw’s attempts to impose whole of supply-chain regulation on clothing outwork were framed in terms of concerns about job loss. When faced with the need to defeat regulatory initiatives to improve the wages and conditions of outworkers, economic liberals suddenly transformed themselves into champion job protectors, arguing that the threat to communities from the loss of outwork jobs was too great).

After reading the book, one is left with definite sympathy towards protectionism. The discussion of 1980 and 90s TCF structural change policies creates in the reader the feeling that successful government policy-making is virtually impossible. Yet clearly retaining tariffs and quotas would also have been unfeasible, because inconsistent with Australia’s international trade treaty obligations. Webber and Weller argue that industry policy in Australia has failed repeatedly because it misread the industry’s structure and wrongly applied approaches derived from flexible accumulation theory. Yet it is difficult to see what strategies would have made more sense than those adopted, although as they point out, a more gradual approach to removing tariff protection has been used overseas.

Though it is an amazing compendium of facts, figures and insights, be warned that Refashioning the Fashion Trade belies quick reading. Indeed, it is because this book incorporates such a holistic analysis of industry restructuring that the story it tells is complex. Moreover, the authors resist the temptation to rely on simplistic truths or polemics about this or that policy. Different spheres of Australian society are analysed as relatively autonomous from one another. For example, the shifts and turns of Federal Government TCF policy during the 1980s and 90s are analysed as the consequence of changes in the political balance of forces between interventionist and economic liberal policy makers in Canberra, rather than reflecting the power of different economic interests within the industry.

The huge personal costs on an aging workforce were never adequately taken into account

One of the selling points of the book is the number of interesting and informative mini-stories it tells along the way. A good example is the analysis given of clothing industry award restructuring, a strategy to which the TCF Union of Australia had in the 1980s attached considerable hopes of leading to greater recognition of women’s skills and more flexible and responsible work. Here the authors argue that because of the context in which it was introduced—an industry where import competition was causing damage to local producers, and in which it was not possible to either win wage rises or good quality training—it was resisted by workers in favour of existing individualised, Payment By Results methods. Thus, paradoxically, ‘…award restructuring under the Plan caused labour costs to increase without increasing productivity commensurately, thus accelerating the shift away from factory-based employment [towards home-based work]’ (p144).

Another fascinating section is that dealing with the empirical research amongst retrenched workers. Although those familiar with the immigrant employment experience in Australia might expect long tem unemployment, labour market retreat, and limited re-skilling amongst the redundant workers, the degree of these problems is striking. Moreover, the deterioration of job quality amongst those TCF workers who do find work again is startling. Before being retrenched, 96 per cent of workers worked full-time. In post-retrenchment jobs (a third of which were in TCF) 20 per cent of men and nearly half of women worked part-time, and a third were in casual and short-term positions (pp275-6).

New data is also presented on that much treated issue, clothing outwork. The research reported in the book confirms the exploitative and undesirable nature of much clothing outwork. But it also provides a different snap shot of the sector, as a result of tracing workers through Commonwealth Employment Service records rather than through the union or community networks. In this sample, men were found to be as involved as undertaking outwork after retrenchment as women; and young Asian female retrenchees were less likely to enter outwork than they were to re-enter other sections of the industry. The research even obtained job satisfaction data for outworkers, finding that outworkers were more likely to express dissatisfaction with their jobs (pp204).

It is possible that the book could have benefited from tighter editing, and more signposting for the reader: because there are so many intertwined arguments, it would have been helpful to have more cross-referencing, more foreshadowing of what is coming ahead, and more pursuit of earlier arguments in later chapters. This is a book that expects the reader to do a substantial amount of work, although the writing is lucid and concise.

In conclusion, Refashioning the Fashion Trade is a treasure trove of scholarly research that brings together and untangles the complex processes of industry restructuring and labour adjustment in TCF. It provides an excellent case study of Australian manufacturing sector decline, as well as multiple insights on the lives of the immigrant workers who have sustained the industries for so long. It is a dense book however, and arguments are subtly, rather than forcefully, made—making it most appropriate for a committed readership.

Caroline Alcorso is a Senior Researcher at the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training. Until 2000, she has worked in the NSW Department of Industrial Relations, on policy to stop exploitation of clothing outworkers.