Blood, Sweat, and Shears: A Closer Look at Sweatshops

How can you tell if the product you are about to purchase was made by a child, by teenaged girls forced to work until midnight seven days a week, or in a sweatshop by workers paid 9 an hour? The sad fact is… You cannot. The companies do not want you to know, so they hide their production behind locked factory gates, barbed wire and armed guards. Many multinationals refuse to release to the American people even the list and addresses of the factories they use around the world to make the goods we purchase. The corporations say we have no right to this information.

Even the President of the United States could not find out where these companies manufacture their goods. Yet, to shop with our conscience, it is our right to know in which countries and factories, under what human rights conditions, and at what wages the products we purchase are made. This paper will be a behind the scenes look at what really happens behind the closed door of sweatshops. The terms “sweatshop” and “sweating” were first used in the 19th century to describe a subcontracting system where the middlemen earned their profit from the margin between the amount they received from a contract and the amount they paid workers.

This margin was “sweated” from the workers because they received minimal wages for excessive hours worked under unsanitary conditions (Mason, 33). This concept of sweating comes alive again in today’s garment industry which is best described as a pyramid where big-name retailers and brand-name manufacturers contract with sewing shops, who in turn hire garment workers to make the finished product. Retailers and manufacturers at the top of the pyramid dictate how much workers earn in wages by controlling the contract price given to the contractor.

With these prices declining each year by as much as 25%, contractors are forced to “sweat” a profit from garment workers by working them long hours at low wages (Mason, 34). The U. S. General Accounting Office has developed a working definition of a sweatshop as “an employer that violates more than one federal or state labor, industrial homework, occupational safety and health, workers’ compensation, or industry registration. ” More broadly, a sweatshop is a workplace where workers are subject to extreme exploitation, including the absence of a living wage or benefits, poor working conditions and arbitrary discipline (Department of Labor, 2).

Despite hard-won laws for minimum wage, overtime pay, and occupational safety and health (and even government and industry pledges to crackdown) sweatshops are commonplace in the U. S. garment industry and are spreading rapidly throughout developing countries. In the U. S. , garment workers typically toil 60 hours a week in front of their machines, often without minimum wage or overtime pay. In fact, the Department of Labor estimates that more than half of the country’s 22,000 sewing shops violate minimum wage and overtime laws.

Many of these workers labor in dangerous conditions including blocked fire exits, unsanitary bathrooms, and poor ventilation. Government surveys reveal that 75% of U. S. garment shops violate safety and health laws. In addition, workers commonly face verbal and physical abuse and are intimidated from speaking out, fearing job loss or deportation (Department of Labor, 2). The Department of Labor defines a work place as a sweatshop if it violates two or more of the most basic labor laws including child labor, minimum wage, overtime and fire safety laws (Department of Labor, 3).

For many, the word sweatshop conjures up images of dirty, cramped, turn of the century New York tenements where immigrant women worked as seamstresses. High-rise tenement sweatshops still do exist, but, today, even large, brightly lit factories can be the sites of rampant labor abuses. Sweatshop workers report horrible working conditions including sub-minimum wages, no benefits, non-payment of wages, forced overtime, sexual harassment, verbal abuse, corporal punishment, and illegal firings. Children can often be found working in sweatshops instead of going to school.

Sweatshop operators are notorious for avoiding giving maternity leave by firing pregnant women and forcing women workers to take birth control or to abort their pregnancies (Taylor, 52). Sweatshop operators can best control a pool of workers that are ignorant of their rights as workers. Therefore, bosses often refuse to hire unionized workers and intimidate or fire any worker suspected of speaking with union representatives or trying to organize her fellow workers. In the garment industry, the typical sweatshop worker is a woman (90% of all sweatshop workers are women).

She is young and, often, missing the chance for an education because she must work long hours to support a family. In America, she is often a recent or undocumented immigrant. She is almost always non-union and usually unaware that, even if she is in this country illegally, she still has rights as a worker (Taylor, 66). In December of 1998, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights celebrated its 50th Anniversary. The governments of the world have pledged to honor the basic rights we are all born with. Unfortunately for too many people these promises have no meaning.

Hundreds of millions of people are robbed of their basic human rights simply because of racial or economic status. Every person has basic human rights such as enough to eat, equality of opportunity, an education, freedom from violence, and a livelihood. Other human rights include clean water, a safe environment, health care, a home, and say in our futures (Mason, 88). The notorious sweatshops of the age of Big Business (the late 19th and early 20th centuries) virtually disappeared after World War II because of increased government regulation of monopolies and the rise of trade unions.

Sweatshops began to reappear again, however, during the 1980’s and 1990’s because of economic globalization. Today’s economy is described as global because advancements in technology have made it possible for large corporations that were once confined to a specific geographic location to become large multi-nationals (Mason, 77). The popularity of the free market following the fall of Communism and a rise in anti-union sentiment, coupled with government programs (like NAFTA and GATT) designed to encourage free trade, have hastened the globalization process.

Large corporations are now free to seek out low-wage havens: impoverished countries where corporations benefit from oppressive dictatorial regimes that actively suppress workers’ freedoms of speech and association. Even in North America, where the North American Free Trade Agreement is supposed to enforce a minimum standard for workers’ rights, corporations concentrate in maquiladoras, free trade zones that were created by NAFTA, where the workers’ rights provisions of the Agreement simply do not apply (Co-op America).

Corporations have been fleeing countries with relatively prosperous economies and stable, democracies in droves not only to take advantage of cheap labor, but to escape government scrutiny and criticism from human rights and workers’ rights organizations. Guess? Clothing Co. , for example, has always produced the majority of its goods in the U. S. but threatened to move 75% of this manufacturing to Mexico last year in response to Department of Labor citations and highly publicized humanitarian campaigns about Guess? California contract sweatshops (Department of Labor, 4).

There are probably sweatshops in every country in the world – anywhere where there is a pool of desperate, exploitable workers. Logically, the poorer a country is the more exploitable its people are. Labor violations are, therefore, especially widespread in third world countries. Nike has been criticized for unethical labor practices in its Chinese, Vietnamese and Indonesian shoe factories, and Haitian garment factories. Non-profit groups have documented the labor violations of retailers like Philips-Van Heusen and the Gap in factories throughout Latin America.

As mentioned above, however, developing countries are not the only ones with sweatshops. Guess? Clothing Corporation, for example, has been cited numerous times by the Department of Labor for the use of contract sweatshops in California (Department of Labor, 5). Many of the companies directly running sweatshops are small and don’t have much name recognition. However, virtually every retailer in the U. S. has ties to sweatshops. The U. S. is the biggest market for the garment industry and 5 corporations control almost all the garment sales in this country.

These include Wal-Mart, JC Penney, Sears, The May Company (owns and operates Lord & Taylor, Hecht’s, Filene’s and others) and Federated Department Stores (owns and operates Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Burdine’s, Stern’s and others). The Department of Labor has cited several industry leaders for labor abuses. Of these Guess? Clothing Co. is one of the worst offenders – Guess was suspended indefinitely from the Department of Labor’s list of good guys because their contractors were cited for so many sweatshop violations (Department of Labor, 4).

Other companies contract out their production to overseas manufacturers whose labor rights violations have been exposed by U. S. and international human rights groups. These include Nike, Disney, Wal-Mart, Reebok, Liz Claiborne and Ralph Lauren. According to the Department of Labor, over 50% of U. S. garment factories are sweatshops. Many sweatshops are run in this country’s apparel centers: California, New York, Dallas, Miami and Atlanta. Overseas, garment workers routinely make less than a living wage, working under extremely oppressive conditions.

Workers in Vietnam average $0. 12 per hour, and workers in Honduras average $0. 60 per hour. Sweatshops can be viewed as a product of the global economy. Fueled by an abundant supply of labor in the global market, capital mobility, and free trade, garment industry giants move from country to country seeking the lowest labor costs and the highest profit, exploiting workers the world over (Department of Labor, 7). It is often cost effective to do business in other countries where there are not as many restrictions and regulations to protect the environment.

For example, the disposal of contaminated waste and pollution of incinerators; the workers, their safety, health and well being; and the sense of responsibility to the host nations and their citizenry. Corporate responsibility is a theme surrounding the issue of sweatshops. With respect to corporate relocation, the industries are contributing to the prospective countries economies; however, they are taking advantage of the lack of regulation and without addressing the long-term effects of the future economic and environmental concerns to the detriment of these nations.

It is true at the same time that economic development of these nations will contribute to the world economy and uplifting economies and populations will result in more stable global markets. Large corporations almost always use contract-manufacturing firms to produce their goods. In this way, corporations separate themselves from the production of their own goods and try to claim that the working conditions under which their goods are produced are not their responsibility. In fact, it is the corporations that dictate the conditions of their workers.

Corporations squeeze their contractors into paying sub-minimum wages. Large retailers and retail chains pressure contract manufacturers by refusing to pay more that a rock-bottom price for manufacturing orders. They also demand that their manufacturing contractors guarantee them a profit by buying back unsold merchandise at the end of each season. Manufacturers deal with this financial squeeze not by cutting their own profits, but by cutting workers’ wages and benefits, and by compromising workers’ physical safety. Many corporations also refuse to contract to union shops.

So, even if a contractor does want to pay their workers a reasonable wage and allow them their freedom of association, he/she will probably be run out of business. In the end, it is the workers who pay for corporate greed. Unfortunately the Department of Labor does not have enough personnel to inspect every workplace for labor violations. The Department of Labor only requires companies to have an internal monitoring policy, as opposed to an external monitoring policy where site inspections and evaluations would be unannounced and conducted by impartial parties.

With internal monitoring there is no way to know whether companies are telling the truth about the conditions in their own factories. Many companies, like Nike, pay private accounting firms to come into their factories and assess the working conditions as independent monitors. Even when companies are caught violating workers’ rights, the punishment is often nominal. Fines that may seem hefty to us are insignificant to companies reaping multi-million dollar profits (Co-op America, 6).

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 officially prohibits sweatshops. However, because of understaffing at the Department of Labor and corporations’ strategies for distancing themselves from the production of their goods by contracting production out to many different manufacturers, enforcement is lax. Earlier this year Stop Sweatshops Bills were introduced in Congress that would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to hold companies responsible for the labor violations of their contractors (Department of Labor, 6).

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. Corporations have skewed priorities.

Many are putting expenses like CEO salaries and advertising costs before the well being of their workers. For example, Haitian workers sewing children’s pajamas for Disney would have to toil full-time for 14. 5 years to earn what Michael Eisner makes in one hour! Here’s another staggering statistic: 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 (Femininists Against Sweatshops, 5). It would be very easy to attack the problem by exploiting the issue and bringing it to the attention of the public in a derogatory manner. By raising the issue and educating people about the reality of sweatshops, as the issue enters their consciousness and they realize how it effects their every day lives, a movement can begin to be made.

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