Background on Sweatshops

Sewing machines

Sweatshops reentered the public eye in the U.S. in 1995 when two major sweatshop exposés rocked the nation. In Los Angeles, labor officials discovered a slave-sweatshop where 80 Thai immigrants were forced to sew brand-name clothes in a compound behind razor wire and armed guards. The workers earned $2 per hour for making clothes that was later sold at major stores. In Honduras, girls as young as 13 were found sewing clothing for TV talk-show host Kathie Lee Gifford's apparel line sold at Wal-Mart. The girls worked from 7:30am to 9:00pm, Monday through Friday, and because of forced overtime to meet rush orders, the children were not permitted to attend night school, where from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm they could have studied to complete their grammar school educations.

Since these sweatshops were discovered, other companies have been charged with using sweatshop labor in the U.S. and around the world including Nike and Gap.

What are sweatshops?

It is any workplace in which workers are subject to extreme exploitation. This includes not providing workers with benefits, acceptable working conditions, or a living wage. A living wage differs from minimum wage by enabling workers to cover the cost of basic needs, such as food, shelter, and health care; minimum wages usually do not cover these costs.

What is sweatshop labor like?

Sweatshop laborers generally work 60-80 hours per week and are not paid enough money to put food on the table; they sometimes receive only pennies a day for their labor. Often, the sweatshop environment is unsafe – workers are harassed, intimidated, forced to work overtime, and made to work in dangerous and unhealthy environments, even while sick. Workers handle toxic chemical paints, solvents, and glues with their bare hands.

Why do sweatshops exist?

Sweatshops are a product of the global economy and so-called "free" trade. Companies increase profits by driving down costs any way possible, so they set up low-cost factories. To minimize costs, companies look for places with the lowest wages and human rights protections. Sweatshops can be found all over Central and South America, Asia, and certain regions of Europe. There are even undocumented workers in sweatshops in places like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

What is the link between sweatshops and child labor?

Children are employed in sweatshops because they work for less money and are less likely to complain about poor working conditions. Many of the children must work to help their parents, who are not paid enough to provide for the family. An education is out of the question for these children, who must work instead of going to school.

How are sweatshops tied to human trafficking?

Despite international and domestic human rights agreements, many countries fail to protect the rights of their workers, and often have a hand in their exploitation. For instance, the trafficking of Thai women to Japan as means of cheap labor often includes debt bondage, forced labor and many other abuses. These women undergo slavery-like conditions, and are literally "bought" and "sold" to employers. Many are forced to work without wages until they have repaid inflated "debts" and "fees", which may take years. The women are also subject to physical abuse, excessively long working hours, and sexual harassment. (Find out more on human trafficking here.)

A woman's issue

Millions of workers, mostly women, toil in tens of thousands of sweatshops around the world. Sweatshop awareness organizations estimate that 85% of sweatshop workers are young women between the ages of 15-25.

As an employment requirement, women at some Mexican and Central American plants are forced to take shots to prevent pregnancy so that companies do not have to pay maternity leave. If a woman become pregnant or refuses to submit to forced birth control, she may be fired.

Sweatshops in the U.S.

Studies found that 67% of Los Angeles garment factories and 63% of New York garment factories violated minimum wage and overtime laws. The same studies revealed that 98% of L.A. garment factories violated workplace health and safety standards by operating under conditions such as blocked fire exits, unsanitary bathrooms, and poor ventilation. Over 50% of these shops can be considered "sweatshops."

U.S. companies with ties to sweatshops

Many corporations use contract manufacturing firms to produce their goods. By separating themselves from the production of their goods, they can claim that they are not aware, and consequently not responsible, for the conditions under which they are made. The reality, however, is that these companies actually dictate the labor standards of their suppliers. Because corporations demand extremely low prices for merchandise, the manufacturers, with profit in forefront of their minds, cut the wages of their employees and compromise their safety. Foreign governments accommodate corporations, as well, by setting the minimum wage well below what is needed to meet basic needs, in order to boost national economic gain. American companies get away with these types of business practices because the U.S. Labor Department requires only internal monitoring. As a result, there is no way to determine whether or not companies are honest about the conditions that they find. Unfortunately, even if violations of human rights are discovered, corporations are only held to negligible fines. That is, the fines they must pay if and when they are caught are minimal compared to the money they save by outsourcing the manufacturing of their goods.

Many U.S. retailers have ties to sweatshops, which are usually foreign owned and operated.

  • Wal-Mart, JC Penney, Sears, The May Company and Federated Department are five U.S. Corporations that rely on sweatshop labor.
  • The May Company owns and operates Lord & Taylor, Hecht’s, Filene’s and other companies.
  • The Federated Department owns and operates Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Burdine’s, Stern’s, etc.
  • Guess? Clothing Co. is one of the worse offenders according to the Department of Labor. They have been cited for labor abuses and are suspended indefinitely from the Department of Labor’s list of “good guys” because their contractors were cited for so many sweatshop violations.”

Then there are those companies who set up operations overseas to get around U.S. labor laws. Nike, Disney, Wal-Mart, Reebok, Phillips-Van Heusen, the Gap, Liz Claiborne and Ralph Lauren are some companies that have set up operations overseas. These companies get away with exploiting workers because the Department of Labor only requires that companies have “internal monitoring policies.” Therefore there is no way of knowing whether companies are telling the truth or not. Companies like Nike pay private accounting firms to come into their factories and assess the working conditions as “independent” monitors.” Even when these companies are caught infringing on workers rights they don’t receive harsh punishment.

What is the alternative to a sweatshop?

Corporations set up sweatshops in the name of "competition". In reality these corporations are not facing profit loses or bankruptcy, just too little profit! During this century, workers real wages have gone down while CEO's salaries have skyrocketed. In 1965 the average CEO made 44 times the average factory worker. Today, the average CEO makes 212 times the salary of the average worker.

The problem is that corporations have skewed priorities. Expenses like CEO salaries and advertising costs are put before the well-being of their workers. In 2007, Mark G. Parker, CEO of NIKE, raked in $6,227,968 in total compensation (according to the SEC). In 2007, NIKE’s advertising budget was $678 million. Realistically, Nike could pay all its individual workers enough to feed and clothe themselves and their families if it would just devote 1% of its advertising budget to workers' salaries each year! Corporations falsely claim that they are victims of the global economy when, in fact, corporations help create and maintain this system.

Sources:

National Labor Committee.
Interreligious Task Force
Sweatfree
Woman and Global Human Rights
Human Rights Watch
Feminist.org
AFL-CIO Paywatch
NY Times
Business Week