Power relations, industrial clusters, and regional transformations: Pan-European integration and outward processing in the Slovak clothing Industry

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Since the late 1980s the East European clothing sector has witnessed a dramatic transformation. Driven by increasing costs in Western Europe, Western clothing retailers and buyers have increasingly outsourced production to lower-cost regions of postcommunist Eastern Europe. One consequence of these changes has been a dramatic growth of clothing producers in Eastern Europe, locked into supply relations with Western buyers while simultaneously involved in dense networks of relations between firms in regional clusters. This article focuses on the form that power relations take, which knit together pan-European supply linkages and regional clusters of clothing firms in Slovakia. In drawing on a weak form of actor-network theory and an understanding of capitalist commodity production, the article explores the uneven nature of these power relations, as well as their fluidity at three levels. First, attention is given to relations between Slovak firms and Western buyers that largely involve a tenuous form of price competitiveness, which is simultaneously under threat from lower-cost production zones elsewhere. Second, the variant power relations between producers in regional clusters of clothing firms in Slovakia are explored. Production flexibilities have been built through a network of locally agglomerated workshop production units and domestic home-based workers to whom work is outsourced when required. Third, the implications of these forms of outsourcing are explored in relation to workplace and wage-level pressures. The article therefore suggests the importance of understanding dynamic and fluid power relations in the economic geography of regional clusters and the globalization of outsourcing in the clothing sector.