Clothing workers have always been poorly paid. Clothing for serfs and servants on medieval estates was produced on-site, usually from materials grown, harvested, and processed by serfs—essentially, slave labor. Slaves made their own clothing on American cotton plantations. Clothing production prospers where cheap labor is plentiful. Although some operations require great skill, most construction tasks are divided into small steps that can be learned quickly. In the past 200 years, garment factories have been among the first large-scale manufacturing enterprises to open in developing nations. In nineteenth-century New York, manufacturers crowded hundreds of poorly paid immigrants into high-rise buildings, often in unsafe situations. Contracting and homework were widespread. One group of immigrants after another supplied the labor—German, Irish, Jewish, Italian; in the twentieth century, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, and Blacks joined the list. Even today, "sweatshops" owned by and employing immigrants from Asia flourish in New York City. During the second half of the twentieth century, garment manufacture spread to Hong Kong, then to China and other parts of southeast Asia, not to mention Latin America and African locations that have large numbers of people willing to work for low wages. Although machines facilitate clothing construc tion, much of the process resists automation. Reading clothing labels is a lesson in geography.
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