Many hands are involved in the creation of a garment: the greatest contribution of the textile-apparel industry is the number of jobs it generates. In 2022, there were more than 519,000 people in the entire chain, from the first to the last link. Now, what is that work like? A review of the characteristics of employment in the textile sector.
Globally, the textile-apparel industry sustains approximately 70 million jobs, with over two-thirds situated in Asia. Predominantly, the largest chunk of employment, approximately 46.5 million individuals (66.5%), is associated with the manufacturing sector. Argentina is no exception with its workforce exceeding 539,000 jobs in 2022. Notably, employment within this sector, particularly in roles linked to apparel production, is characterized by a noteworthy prevalence of informality and precariousness, coupled with low income levels and high participation of women.
Employment characteristics in the textile-apparel industry
Argentina’s apparel sector exhibits a substantial prevalence of self-employment. Between 2016 and 2022, 41% of the workforce was self-employed. This figure not only nearly doubles the average within the Argentine economy (22%) but also places the sector as the one with the highest level of self-employment within the manufacturing industry. This phenomenon arises from the fact that most of those who work in home sewing and family workshops make garments for several clients concurrently. The flip side of this high level of self-employment is a markedly low rate of salaried workers, standing at 54% in garment manufacturing compared to the economy’s overall rate of 74%. This signals the precariousness of labor conditions within this specific segment of the supply chain.
In line with global trends, labor informality is a prominent feature of the apparel industry. Between 2016 and 2022, a significant 72% of the sector’s workforce was in informal employment, placing it among the top three sectors of the economy with the highest rates of informality. It is only behind the construction industry (80%) and domestic employment (75%).
In contrast, the textile sector boasts a considerably lower informality rate (40%), surpassing even the average rates for both the manufacturing industry (46%) and the overall economy (46%). This difference can be explained by the larger size of textile establishments, which are subject to greater control by public authorities and trade unions. In addition, the lower formality rates are a consequence of a more concentrated supply, which requires higher profit margins to offset the costs associated with formalization.
Widespread informality in the industry deepened in the 1990s, largely due to the bankruptcy of large industrial companies and the proliferation of smaller informal workshops. By the end of the decade, nearly 70% of garment workers were in the informal labor market, peaking at 85% after the 2001 crisis. Despite economic growth between 2003 and 2011, the percentage declined only slightly to 68% between 2013 and 2015, a threshold that proved resistant to further reduction.
The apparel sector emerges as the manufacturing segment characterized by the lowest total earnings, due to a combination of lower hourly earnings and a reduced workweek. With an average of 35 hours per week, it is below the textile sector (38.7) and the industry average (38.3). This is mainly due to a significant share of part-time employment, which is particularly prevalent among the self-employed and female workers.
The low monthly income within this value chain translates into a high incidence of poverty. While 24.6% of the employed population in the Argentine economy lived in poor households between 2016 and 2022, this share rose to 34.6% in the apparel sector and 30.6% in the textile sector. Apparel ranks then as the second industrial sector with the highest incidence of poverty among employed individuals, following the footwear sector.
Given the machine-intensive nature of the textile link, skills are critical for workers in spinning, weaving, and dyeing mills. The various machines used in garment production, such as overlock, straight, necklace, and pocket machines, require workers with operational qualifications, an expertise that Argentina has historically possessed. Consequently, it comes as no coincidence that approximately 82% of those employed in the textile and apparel sectors hold operative positions, a significantly higher percentage than the Argentine economy average of 51.3%. In sharp contrast, the presence of unskilled workers hovers between 5% and 7%, well below the economy-wide average of 20.3%.
Moreover, there is a lower presence of technical and professional profiles compared to the economy’s average (11% vs. 28%). These highly skilled professionals and technicians are engaged in the design and testing of new materials, adaptation and repair of machinery, as well as the organization of the production process. Within the manufacturing link, design work is typically delegated to university professionals.
In terms of gender dynamics, the apparel industry predominantly employs women. A substantial 69% of individuals employed in this sector in Argentina from 2016 to 2022 were women, significantly higher than the national economy’s average (44%). This represents an increase of nearly 30 percentage points compared to the textile link, and nearly 40 points higher than the average for manufacturing — traditionally a male-dominated sector. Internationally, this industry stands out as one of the most feminized segments of manufacturing.
An analysis of labor informality among women in the apparel industry shows that 76% of them work under informal conditions, which is 30 percentage points higher than the economy-wide average. Additionally, a stark contrast emerges between the rates of labor informality experienced by men and women within the same sphere of apparel manufacturing.
Strong foreign workforce presence
A notable 20% of the apparel production workforce comprises immigrants, positioning this sector as the second-highest in terms of foreign workforce presence across the entire economy—second only to offshore entities (primarily embassies and consulates) at 45%.
Among foreign workers in the garment industry, 59% are from Bolivia, 17% from Paraguay, 14% from Peru, 4% from Uruguay, 3% from Chile, and the remaining fraction comes from countries as diverse as Italy, South Korea, and Colombia. The impact of immigrant communities becomes even more pronounced when the offspring of immigrants are considered.
In parallel with female workers, labor informality tends to be higher among immigrant workers. Between 2016 and 2022, 60% were in informal positions. This problem is particularly acute in the garment sector, where 86% of all immigrant workers were in informal positions—a figure that further escalates to 90% among women.
Employment in small establishments
A significant 39.4% of workers in the garment industry work in one-person establishments, a figure almost 20 points higher than the Argentine industrial average. This uniqueness traces back to the prevalence of home-based work, a practice rooted in the sector’s historical origins. Simultaneously, 48.4% of employment concentrates in small establishments ranging from 2 to 25 workers, signifying that 88% of apparel industry employment aligns with units hosting up to 25 workers. This sharply contrasts with the economy and manufacturing industry averages, both at 66%.
In contrast, the textile link boasts more extensive productive units, with 43% of employment concentrated in establishments exceeding 26 employees. This distinction arises from the larger size of spinning and weaving factories.
In Argentina, the apparel industry is characterized by a significant prevalence of home-based work. Between 2016 and 2022, 36.4% of workers in the industry performed their work remotely, a figure significantly higher than the industry average of 16%. This form of work is particularly prevalent among women, who make up 87% of home-based workers in the apparel industry.
This work arrangement thrives because of the low barriers to entry into garment work—a small machine in a room is enough—and the lack of inspections in home-based work environments.
Unfortunately, almost all home-based jobs lack formalization. The labor productivity of this form of work lags behind that of formal factories, which use process design and technologically advanced equipment to organize production. As a result, lower productivity translates into lower hourly wages for home-based workers, compounded by higher costs compared to salaried sewing workers.