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Thiefing a Chance

Thiefing a Chance: Factory Work, Illicit Labor, and Neoliberal Subjectivities in Trinidad

Rebecca Prentice
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Thiefing a Chance
    Book Description:

    When an IMF-backed program of liberalization opened Trinidad's borders to foreign ready-made apparel, global competition damaged the local industry and unraveled worker entitlements and expectations but also presented new economic opportunities for engaging the "global" market. This fascinating ethnography explores contemporary life in the Signature Fashions garment factory, where the workers attempt to exploit gaps in these new labor configurations through illicit and informal uses of the factory, a practice they colloquially refer to as "thiefing a chance."Drawing on fifteen months of fieldwork, author Rebecca Prentice combines a vivid picture of factory life, first-person accounts, and anthropological analysis to explore how economic restructuring has been negotiated, lived, and recounted by women working in the garment industry during Trinidad's transition to a neoliberal economy. Through careful social coordination, the workers "thief" by copying patterns, taking portions of fabric, teaching themselves how to operate machines, and wearing their work outside the factory. Even so, the workers describe their "thiefing" as a personal, individualistic enterprise rather than a form of collective resistance to workplace authority. By making and taking furtive opportunities, they embrace a vision of themselves as enterprising subjects while actively complying with the competitive demands of a neoliberal economic order.Prentice presents the factory not as a stable institution but instead as a material and social space in which the projects, plans, and desires of workers and their employers become aligned and misaligned, at some moments in deep harmony and at others in rancorous conflict. Arguing for the productive power of the informal and illicit,Thiefing a Chancecontributes to anthropological debates about the very nature of neoliberal capitalism and will be of great interest to undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty in anthropology, labor studies, Caribbean studies, and development studies.

    eISBN: 978-1-60732-375-4
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. Map of Trinidad
    (pp. viii-viii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  6. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-24)

    It is early morning at Signature Fashions, but work in the factory is already well under way. Throughout the stitching section, workers are busy sewing the latest line of garments bound for Signature’s branded stores in Trinidad, Tobago, and throughout the Caribbean region. Kimberly is quietly at work on the hemming machine, passing T-shirt after T-shirt under its double needles, leaving two neat rows of stitching on the bottom of each garment. As soon as Cissy, the production manager, leaves the shop floor to enter the cutting room, Kimberly stops working and leans forward in her chair. She hisses at...

  7. 2 Being a Factory the Signature Way
    (pp. 25-50)

    In the departure lounge at Tobago’s tiny airport, a large advertising poster depicts a young Afro-Caribbean man in carefree repose, resting against a sunlit white background. He wears sunglasses and a loose-fitting linen shirt. His face is a picture of calm relaxation. A company logo,Signature Fashions, and its tidy tag line, “lovingly made in your T&T,” adorn the poster and, along with the serene beauty of the man’s face, make up its most prominent features. Just steps away from where travelers will board their aircraft for the twenty-five-minute flight to Trinidad, the poster is located along one of the...

  8. 3 Raced and Emplaced: Signature Fashions Workers
    (pp. 51-86)

    While I was working on the shop floor of Signature Fashions, my co-workers often asked whether I considered myself more of a “front” worker or a “back” worker. The shop floor is occupationally and spatially divided into two areas: the front, where stitching is done, and the back, where stitched garments are trimmed of excess thread, pressed, and packaged for sale. As an unpaid employee, I had wide-ranging access to the factory and, unlike other workers, the ability to try out different types of work. At first, I assumed that workers’ questions about whether I considered myself “front” or “back”...

  9. 4 “Is We Own Factory”: Thiefing a Chance on the Shop Floor
    (pp. 87-110)

    Thiefing a chanceis a term workers use to refer to a wide range of illicit practices they undertake during the workday, from stitching little items for themselves using company materials and machines to trying out a new sewing machine without managerial permission. Many of the workers maintained their own home businesses in the evening, designing and stitching low-cost clothing for friends and neighbors. Sewing at home helps workers augment the minimum wage they earn at Signature Fashions and gives them a certain stature in their home communities. Workers would bring these “private jobs” into the factory and sneakily hem...

  10. 5 “Keeping Up with Style”: The Struggle for Skill
    (pp. 111-142)

    Early one morning, while Antoinette was serging the sleeves onto a set of blouses, she said to me, “I go thief a pattern for this shirt.” She pointed to the sample blouse hanging from a plastic coat hanger above Cissy’s desk. Across the stitching section, bundles of indigo linen were piled high on the stitchers’ horses, and workers throughout the area were diligently stitching the fabric into blouses. Antoinette said, “I thiefing my little t’ing.”

    “How?” I asked, and she pointed to a small stack of newspapers she had laid on her horse. She told me she would take each...

  11. 6 “Use a Next Hand”: Risk, Injury, and the Body at Work
    (pp. 143-172)

    Glenda’s eyesight was troubling her. As we stood at the side table to cut and turn collars together, she told me she was having trouble “seeing the work,” particularly when it involved looking at dark thread on dark-colored cloth. The prescription glasses Glenda had worn for several years had broken recently, and she replaced them with a pair of reading glasses bought off the rack at a shopping mall. She tried on different pairs and compared their effectiveness by reading the small Bible she carried in her handbag. The glasses she selected were not a good fit, and she would...

  12. 7 “Kidnapping Go Build Back We Economy”: Criminal Tropes in Neoliberal Capitalism
    (pp. 173-194)

    Fifteen days into my fieldwork, I sat watching the six o’clock news with two fellow residents of the Port of Spain women’s hostel where I was living. The three of us sat on wooden chairs with plastic cushions, huddled around a television set in the front room of the hostel. My two companions, Arlene and Thea, were Afro-Trinidadian women from southern Trinidad attending nursing school in Port of Spain. The newsreader announced the recent kidnapping of fifty-six-year-old businessman Vernon Roopnarine, who had been seen by witnesses being bundled into a car outside his home in west-central Trinidad. Shortly after, Roopnarine’s...

  13. 8 Conclusion
    (pp. 195-204)

    Neoliberal restructuring has changed the face of the global garment sector. Fewer and fewer countries now dominate production for the world market, while other parts of the globe—where wages are comparatively high and workers’ rights relatively secure—have been increasingly priced out of competition, even for domestic consumption. The 2005 expiration of the Multi-Fibre Agreement, an international quota system that dispersed garment manufacturing around the world, has accelerated this process of industrial clustering in places where cheap labor, industrial specialization, and economies of scale represent “ideal” market conditions (Gereffi and Frederick 2010; Lu 2013; Rivoli 2005; Frederick and Staritz...

  14. References
    (pp. 205-224)
  15. Index
    (pp. 225-229)