A couple of years ago, I was in an industrial park in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as a textiles executive pitched me on becoming a rich T-shirt manufacturer. It was easy, he said, to teach basic sewing to even the most poorly educated farmers. If I could spend $500,000 on used sewing machines (he knew a guy), rent a concrete building with no air-conditioning and hire a few dozen peyizan (Creole for "peasants") for around $3 per day, I could recoup my investment within two years. And if it didn't work out, he noted, I could sell the equipment to an entrepreneur in another poor nation.
Nearly every rich country has gone through a "T-shirt phase" — an economic period in which there are a significant number of poor farmers who, rather than toil on unproductive land, accept harsh work conditions and low wages in textile and apparel factories. Britain started its T-shirt phase in the late 18th century; the United States had two — New England in the 19th century, then the South in the 20th. During the last 80 or so years, many Asian countries — first Japan, then Korea, Taiwan and China — progressed from the T-shirt phase into broader economic development. Cambodia, Vietnam, parts of India and Sri Lanka are passing through this now. But Bangladesh, where an eight-story apparel factory tragically collapsed last month, killing hundreds of workers and devastating the country, is in the midst of a particularly confusing T-shirt phase. The question is whether it will emerge into a more developed economy, like its many predecessors, or remain stuck, like Haiti.
According to the comprehensive "Ashgate Companion to the History of Textile Workers," a study of 21 countries over 350 years, nearly every nation suffered through its T-shirt phase differently. Argentina's brutal encomienda system literally worked indigenous laborers to death. The Hapsburg monarchy's T-shirt phase coincided with its own collapse. Japan's progress was slowed by a world war; Germany's was all but destroyed by two. New England's textile workers had it relatively good; if conditions didn't improve, they could threaten to leave for the frontier.
All these countries, however, experienced the same broad phenomenon. Lex Heerma van Voss, an editor of the "Ashgate Companion," told me that the T-shirt phase lasts only as long as there are large populations of farmers with few options. This is known as a "race to the bottom." Factory owners compete by offering low prices, which are accomplished by paying workers tiny wages. Cutting costs by a few pennies per shirt may sound trivial, but mass-market brands find that even a slight increase in price destroys demand. And those pennies at wholesale become dollars at retail.
But once the factories have absorbed all these desperate farmers, they need to find a new competitive advantage. That usually involves making better products. When the T-shirt phase ends, a "race to the top" usually begins. Factories often shift to finer clothes, like dress shirts, which require skilled workers. This phase often involves the growth of unions and rising wages. It's typically followed by one in which factory owners, forced to pay more, seek out ever more profitable lines of business. That can mean the move to low-end electronics assembly, then auto plants and maybe even airplane manufacturing. At the high end of the spectrum, you begin to see what the U.S. manufacturing economy is going through now — expensive products, like medical devices, which are often made by machines that are operated by highly skilled workers.