Sweat Shops, by: Stephanie Hardyway

How can we 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 that most of the time we can’t. Companies do not want us 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 (Zwolinski 6). 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.

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 came 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 those long hours at low wages (Mason 34).

In the U.S, garment workers typically toil 70 or 80 hours a week in front of their machines, often without minimum wage or overtime pay (Lessin). 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, since many of the workers are immigrants (Department of Labor 2).

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.

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, and 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, and so that is why so many of these women are subject to work under these circumstances. Not only the women, but hundreds of millions of other people are robbed of their basic human rights simply because of racial or economic status.

The U.S. has always been a big participant in the use of sweat shops and with a government that advertises freedom it is hard to believe. So people lose the rights guaranteed to them for the simple fact that low wages, with poor conditions, is better than nothing at all. Everyone has their own questions of morality when it comes to the garment industry. Some might say that yes there are poor conditions, but at least these immigrant workers can get paid, and that the workers should be happy. However, not all people think this way and a lot of people might want to know which stores implement sweat shops as a way of making there clothes. It is won’t be easy to find out which stores use sweat shops, but for now being educated can be enough to hopefully stop production in sweat shops, or at least make the conditions and wages better.

Work Cited

Department of Labor. No Sweat – Help End Sweatshop Conditions for American    Workers. http://www.dol.gov/dol/esa/public/nosweat/nosweat.htm, 2001.

Feminists against Sweatshops. Frequently Asked Questions About Sweatshops and Women Workers http://www.feminist.org/other/sweatfaq.html, 2000.

Mason, Ryan H. Sweatshops in the Twentieth Century. Dame Publications, San Francisco, 1992.

Taylor, Johnathan P. A Global Look at Sweatshops. Burns and Rogers, New York,


Chaney, Bart. Sweat Shop. New Orleans Review. Louisiana, June 2008.


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