29 November 2017

Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk receives 2 million euros to study the relocation of textile production across the world

Kinderarbeid in de kledingindustrie (1909) ). Bron: Wikimedia Commons/Lewis Hine
Child labour in clothing industry (1909). Source: Wikimedia Commons/Lewis Hine

The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded a Consolidator Grant of 2 million euros to historian prof. dr. Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk to study the role of household labour and consumption in the relocation of textile production across the world since ca 1750.

The Consolidator Grant will allow Van Nederveen Meerkerk to set up her own team of researchers for a five-year period (2018-2023). She will use, and link together, a large body of different data, such as wage data, trade data, and household budgets, but also more qualitative material such as ethnographic studies, travel accounts and reports found in national, colonial and regional archives.

In most places and times, the household has been the place where men, women and children make decisions on production, consumption and reproduction. My project aims to study to what extent, and how, household decisions influenced changes in work and consumption patterns, leading to its resilience in some areas, and disappearance in others. It compares and connects developments in households' textile production and consumption in different parts of the world over the past 250 years.

GLOBALIZATION AND THE INTERNATIONAL DIVISION OF LABOUR

Globalization and the shift of industries and jobs to low-wage countries are hotly debated political issues, but have deep historical roots. For centuries, cotton manufacturing has been central in global trade and industrial relocation. Textile production has existed almost everywhere, but its major export production centres have relocated in the past 250 years, notably from Asia to Europe/the US, then back to Asia. When and why these shifts occur is however still poorly understood. Reducing labour costs has been argued to be central in this ‘race to the bottom’, but this does not explain why textile production was resilient in some regions and periods, and not in others.

Race to the Bottom?

The project Race to the Bottom? Family labour, household livelihood and consumption in the relocation of global cotton manufacturing explores the macro-economic global relocation of textile production from a micro-level perspective: households’ labour and consumption decisions. It comprises a comparative study of changes in labour allocation and consumption at the household level, to deepen macro-level studies on global textile production. It will investigate to what extent, and how, gendered allocation of work on the household level impacted macro-economic shifts in labour division. It will scrutinize households’ multiple livelihood strategies, and relate this to the resilience or disappearance of local textile industries. Finally, it will analyze how local consumption patterns have influenced the continuation and disappearance of particular types of textile manufacturing over time and space. This lends workers and households the agency that most studies have so far overlooked, thus offering new explanations for regional as well as global divisions of labour.

Prof. dr. Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk. Foto: Ed van Rijswijk
Prof. Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk

ELISE VAN NEDERVEEN MEERKERK

Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk is Associate Professor of Economic and Social History at the Department of History and Art History, and special professor of Comparative History of Households, Gender and Work at Radboud University, Nijmegen. She has published widely on the history of women’s and children’s work, and has conducted several comparative labour history projects.