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Sweatshops are work environments that possess three major characteristicslong hours, low pay, and unsafe or unhealthy working conditions. Sweatshops may also have policies that severely restrict workers' freedoms, including limiting bathroom breaks and even conversations with fellow workers. At its worst, violence is used

against sweatshop workers. Sweatshops have been a factor in the production of goods around the world for centuries, but the globalization of business has led increasing numbers of major corporations to take advantage of low-cost sweatshop labor in developing countries. Recent examples of sweatshop conditions in the garment industry have caused an international outcry by labor leaders, activists, and government officials. Although manufacturers tend to deny it, sweatshops still exist, even in the United States.


One of the earliest examples of a sweatshop was in the crude textile mills of Ecuador. Spanish conquerors put the native population to work in sweatshop conditions in the manufacture of cloth, rough garments, and assorted textile goods. The use of the term is more recently traced to working conditions in England's emerging manufacturing industries, where women and children sweated in jobs performed under horrid conditions: the work being monotonous, the hours long, and the pay miserably low. The British government established a Select Committee of the House of Lords on the Sweating System in 1889, thus publicly exposing the conditions for the first time. With massive immigration into the United States, especially beginning in the late 1880s, sweatshops became common in American cities on the east coast.

Southern and eastern European immigrants were easy prey for manufacturers who paid low wages and provided poor working conditions in factories. In many instances, the newly arrived immigrants were glad to have these sweating jobs at any wage, no matter how low. The situation in many of the new industries was ripe for sweatshops to develop. Social and economic conditions in most cities produced a large population from which to find workers willing to accept any wage and management systems that neglected the workers, thus removing any consideration of the human factor in manufacturing. Generally, workers lacked access to the kind of knowledge and resources that would enable them to overcome the impossible working conditions, while governments (both local and national), were unwilling to intervene on their behalf. Other characteristics of sweatshops included overcrowding, lack of sanitary conditions, no worker breaks or relief, demands to complete a task within a limited period of time, andas important to the continuance of the sweatshopa total lack of job security.


Initial efforts to correct or improve sweatshops in the United States began in 1884 with legislation in the state of New York to eliminate the production of tobacco products in homesa practice common in the cigar industry. Similar state labor laws proved generally ineffective before trade unions were able to bring about slight relief. But it took federal minimum wage and maximum-hours legislation in 1938 before sweatshops began to disappear.

Making matters worse for the workers, there were few if any advocates for improving sweatshop conditions. The immigrants had virtually no voice in management or government. Many could not read or writemuch less read and write in Englishand were essentially pawns of often unscrupulous, profit-driven manufacturers. Educational opportunities were seldom available, and moving up the corporate ladder was not an option.

Though sweatshops have a long history in the United States, so do attempts to draw attention to them. Famously, Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel, The Jungle, was intended to draw attention to working conditions. However, the novel also drew attention to impurities in foods and instead inspired legislation about quality of foods. In the eighth edition of their classic study on the United States working class, Labor Problems: A Text Book, published in 1912, Thomas S. Adams and Helen Sumner outlined the three conditions in sweatshops and added a disturbing fourth: danger to the consumer's health from using goods manufactured in sweatshops. Few American consumers took notice, but union involvement in improving working conditions was quite evident beginning in the 1910s, especially in the garment industry.

The most infamous sweatshop incident in the United States occurred at the Triangle Waist Company, a garment company in New York City. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the factory, resulting in the deaths of 146 workers, most of whom were young women. The fact that the owners had locked the factory's exits deeply contributed to the tragedy. This fire drew public outrage and attention to poor working and safety conditions in such factories; however, the factory's owners were acquitted of wrongdoing.

Another industry where sweatshop conditions often exist (and still do) is the agricultural industry, which employs a great many immigrants (both legal and illegal) for harvesting or picking fruits and vegetables. The working conditions include long daylight hours under a hot California or Florida sun with few or no breaks. Wages are quite low (often illegally so), but these workers seldom have the means or education to improve their plight, and all desperately need the money.


Sweatshops have not been abolished to this day, as is evident in numerous recent examples in the apparel

industry that have brought national attention and government reaction to the issue. Garment manufacturers found new ways to finish goods in factories outside the United States, where labor costs were miniscule, and in these locations sweatshops flourished. In countries in South and Central America and Asia, such companies found a ready labor supply where wage expectations were low and the sweatshop thrived. Companies like Gap, Liz Claiborne, Kathie Lee Gifford, Nike, and Wal-Mart all came under criticism for marketing goods produced in sweatshops.

National attention was directed at these and other companies in the apparel industry through media outlets, and consumers were sometimes advised not to purchase certain brand names. Advocacy groups, particularly vibrant among college students (who got their start by refusing to buy college or university logo merchandise produced in sweatshops), organize consumer awareness of sweatshop conditions and attempt to pressure companies into ceasing their sweatshop-labor practices. A site was mounted on the Internet by Sweatshop Watcha coalition of labor, community, civil rights, immigrant, and women's organizations ( further spread awareness and coalesce activist projects. Corpwatch ( is another organization that monitors corporate practices, including the use of sweatshop labor.

Though most modern sweatshops exist in poorer and developing countries, it is important to note that sweat-shop conditions can exist anywhere there is a vulnerable population, including inside the United States. In this case, immigrants and undocumented workers can be especially susceptible to sweatshop labor and practices. In 2006, a factory in Massachusetts was raided by authorities. The factory's workers included over 300 undocumented workers. Newspaper reports of the event repeatedly described the factory as a sweatshop.

Though garment and agricultural sweatshops are the most infamous examples, it is important to note that sweatshop conditions can exist in other industries as well. For instance, in 2006 Apple faced allegations that its iPod product was being produced in China under sweatshop conditions. Apple was quick to respond to these charges, launching its own investigation; however, the Apple example also points out how difficult combating sweat-shops can be. Apple's official policy sets conditions against sweatshops.

The Apple incident illustrates how sweatshops can thrive with such practices as outsourcing. BusinessWeek has reported that although many multinational companies have specific policies against sweatshop practices, outsourced suppliers in countries such as China still operate such facilities and can be savvy in terms of hiding these practices, even to corporate clients.

Unfortunately, the problem of sweatshops is likely to deepen. Structural adjustment programs, which are often imposed on developing countries by major financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund, are among the hallmarks of the global economy. These programs, which derive from liberal capitalist economic theories, can act indirectly as barriers against labor laws and labor organization (under the logic that these constitute threats to free trade) while deregulating the flow of foreign investment. Hence, the prevailing social and economic climate makes sweatshop labor not only possible, but attractive (and for some industries, almost necessary).

The geographer Mona Domosh has also observed that sweatshops are heavily populated by women. She notes that women are often used in labor in what are termed Export Processing Zones, also highlighting how globalization has compounded the problem of sweatshops.

In addition, the governments of many developing nations are reluctant to enforce strong worker-protection laws. They view cheap labor as one of the major assets they can offer to attract investment by multinational companies, which creates jobs and provides capital for development. These governments argue that all of the major developed nations limited worker rights early in their economic histories, and that they should be allowed to do so as well, with the goal of eventually achieving the prosperity that would enable them to eliminate sweat-shops. They also claim that sweatshops often provide the best wages and working conditions available to workers in the developing world, who might otherwise be condemned to prostitution, begging, or subsistence farming.

Meanwhile, popular organizing against sweatshop labor is also gaining momentum. These groups try to capitalize on the knowledge that, if the general public were aware of the conditions in which certain consumer items were produced, they would refrain from buying them. Improved global communications, using such tools as satellite and the Internet, make it easy to disseminate information about the business activities of multinational corporations in developing nations. Activists hope that consumer pressure will force companies to become more socially responsible or face devastating negative publicity, like that experienced by Nike and Gap.

Gap provides a recent example of bad publicity because of sweatshops. In late 2007, it was revealed that some of the company's clothes were being produced by young children in India. Though Gap had policies and procedures to prevent the use of sweatshops and children in the production process, it was a subcontractor that was operating the facility. The company responded to this bad publicity by announcing plans for a Sweatshop Free label for its clothing. Gap also pledged to increase its monitoring of subcon-tractors and overseas factories.

Co-op America, sponsor of the No Sweat! program to end sweatshop labor, recommends that individuals and businesses take the following steps to aid the cause: organize local community groups to support a sweatshop-free purchasing law in local or state government; investigate companies with which you do business and insist they maintain good records on labor issues; use your clout as a shareholder to encourage companies to treat employees fairly; and purchase union-made, local, and fair-trade approved goods. Businesses can submit to workplace monitoring under programs run by the Fair Labor Association, Social Accountability International, or Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production.

SEE ALSO Ethics; Globalization; International Management; Multinational Corporations


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Sweatshops, commonly defined today as workplaces violating multiple labor laws, have always been a part of the economic landscape, as have attempts to eliminate sweatshop conditions. Public outrage following the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York, for example, led to creation of a Factory Investigating Commission and the passage of thirty-six laws reforming the state labor code.

U.S. federal labor law is embodied in the Fair Labor Standards Act, originally passed in 1938. This act, too, responded to the prevalence of poor working conditions, calling for elimination of conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers (U.S. Department of Labor 2004, p. 1). Recent laws such as the U.S. Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 extend protection from exploitative practices.

Internationally, the 1998 United Nations Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work provides the foundation for global labor standards. The Declaration defines four core types of labor standards: freedom from forced (trafficked) labor, nondiscrimination, abolition of child labor, and freedom of association/collective bargaining. Additional standards appear in the United Nations Anti-Trafficking Protocol, which recognizes that trafficked workers are victims of a crime and not illegal immigrants (United Nations 2000).

Despite these laws and agreements, violations of labor standards like those exposed by the Triangle fire persist and may well be increasing with globalization. In the United States sweatshop production is closely related to international flows of labor. Sectors such as agriculture, services, and clothing, in which immigrant labor constitutes larger shares of the workforce, are most likely to violate labor laws (Free the Slaves 2004).

While the extent of trade globalization as a new phenomenon is a subject of much debate (Sutcliffe and Glynn 1999), developing countries indisputably have only recently become major producers and exporters in such labor-intensive sectors as clothing and electronics. Companies in sectors that are very sensitive to wages and other costs of protecting workers may find relocation to low-wage countries a profitable response to global competitive pressure.

In developing countries, labor laws and enforcement are typically weak and labor is highly skewed toward the informal sector (Singh and Zammit 2003), defined by the International Labour Office (2002) as paid work not recognized, regulated or protected by existing legal or regulatory frameworks (p. 12). As a result, both wages and nonwage labor costs are lower than in rich countries. While labor costs are not always the only or even primary reason companies move out of developed countries (Chang 1998), for labor-intensive firms, moving offshore and subcontracting to informal producers clearly have become key elements of competitive strategy.

That sweatshop conditions still exist even in the United States is evidence that economic incentives for violating labor standards can be compelling to employers facing competitive threat. Opponents to sweatshops, recognizing the economic incentive to firms of low labor standards, have focused on raising the cost of using sweated labor. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and national trade unions emphasize ratification of and compliance with existing national and United Nations labor standards (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions 2006). Additional pressure comes from popular antisweatshop movements, often supported by trade unions, that target consumers. By exposing sweatshop producers and encouraging consumer boycotts, these movements hope to raise the cost of exploitative labor practices.

While the scope of consumer-based economic punishment of sweatshop producers is limited (Gibson 2005; Elliott and Freeman 2003), empirical evidence suggests that consumers in at least some sectors are willing to pay higher prices to support better labor conditions (Pollin, Burns, and Heintz 2004). In clothing, popular movements have had considerable success in gaining acceptance of codes of conduct designed to raise standards. Many agreements and partnerships specifying in detail acceptable working conditions have emerged between producers and antisweatshop organizations representing consumers, both in the United States and in Europe.

Negotiated agreements and codes of conduct mark a dramatic step forward in recognizing basic human rights at work. A similar change is occurring in economic analysis of labor standards, with leading international institutions now linking protection of core labor standards to democracy and therefore to economic development (International Labour Office 2004; World Bank 2007).

Despite considerable progress, significant challenges remain. Government policy can have a strong impact on compliance, but mainly in large formal-sector firms (Weil 2004). Given the high level of informal labor and the difficulty of monitoring even formal-sector small producers scattered throughout the world, enforcement of laws and agreements continues to be weak.

Countries themselves raise objections to externally imposed standards, fearing loss of sovereignty and competitiveness. As one telling example, the U.S. government has ratified only two of the eight ILO core labor rights: It has not ratified the convention on the right to organize, the convention on equal remuneration, or the convention on discrimination. For poor countries, the economic consequences are not insubstantial. Some standards, such as eliminating child labor and improving health and safety, can be prohibitively expensive in competitive export sectors. Even developing countries strongly in favor of raising labor standards may argue (with much evidence to support their case) that economic growth rather than outside intervention is the best path to sustainable improvement in wages and working conditions (Singh and Zammit 2003). Where intervention reduces competitiveness, growth is retarded and the intervention becomes self-defeating.

In any case, even complete compliance with existing laws and codes of conduct would not settle disagreements over sweatshops. Current laws define core standards but not cash standards (Elliott and Freeman 2003), which would mandate wage minimums designed to establish a living wage, considered by many a critical component of working conditions. Thus, although frameworks for higher labor standards are evolving rapidly, serious limitations persist. A narrow definition of sweatshops excluding cash standards and the difficulty of monitoring working conditions in an increasingly globalized economy both pose daunting obstacles to further progress. Poor countries urgently require international support to finance the improved standards that all too often they desire but cannot afford.

SEE ALSO Child Labor; Economic Growth; Globalization, Social and Economic Aspects of; Labor Law; Labor Union; Occupational Safety; Unions; Wages


Chang, Ha-Joon. 1998. Globalization, Transnational Corporations and Economic Development: Can the Developing Countries Pursue Strategic Industrial Policy in a Globalizing World Economy? In Globalization and Progressive Economic Policy, ed. Dean Baker, Gerald Epstein, and Robert Pollin. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Elliott, Kimberly Ann, and Richard B. Freeman. 2003. Can Labor Standards Improve under Globalization? Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics.

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Gibson, William. 2005. Monitoring Labor Standards in a Macroeconomic Context. In Interactions in Analytical Political Economy: Theory, Policy, and Applications, ed. Mark Setterfield, 67104. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. 2006. Internationally Recognised Core Labour Standards in the United States: Report for the WTO General Council Review of Trade Policies of the United States. Geneva, Switzerland: Author.

International Labour Office. 2002. Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture. Geneva, Switzerland: Author.

International Labour Office. 2004. Organizing for Social Justice: Global Report under the Follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Geneva, Switzerland: Author.

Pollin, Robert, Justine Burns, and James Heintz. 2004. Global Apparel Production and Sweatshop Labor: Can Raising Retail Prices Finance Living Wages? Cambridge Journal of Economics 28 (2): 153171.

Singh, Ajit, and Ann Zammit. 2003. Globalisation, Labour Standards and Economics Development. In The Handbook of Globalisation, ed. Jonathan Michie, 191215. Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar.

Sutcliffe, Bob, and Andrew Glynn. 1999. Still Underwhelmed: Indicators of Globalization and Their Misinterpretation. Review of Radical Political Economics 31: 111131.

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Weil, David. 2004. Improving Labor Standards in the Apparel Industry: Can Government Make a Difference? Working Paper, Boston University/Harvard Center for Textile and Apparel Research.

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Diane Flaherty

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SWEATSHOP refers to both a workplace and a labor system. Sweated work is undesirable, unhealthy, and undemocratic. Sweated labor is characterized by harsh conditions, long hours, very low wages, job insecurity, and often takes place in illegal and temporary workplaces. Sweatshops are often small, temporary garment "shops." Historically, however, sweated workers have often toiled in their own homes, in a system called homework and frequently involving child labor.

Sweated industries tend to be those with intense competition and often seasonal production, requiring little capital outlay, almost no technological innovation, and a constant supply of cheap, unskilled labor. It is an extreme example of what economists call "flexible specialized production." The three key elements are the avoidance of fixed costs, a fixed labor force, and fixed rules. By being flexible, producers can adjust supply to demand quickly, cutting the risk of long-term investment. They can expand to meet new demand and retract during downturns. Producers avoid union rules and legal regulations and restrictions that set wages, benefits, and conditions by working in hidden shops and moving frequently. Sweated labor systems transfer or shift the social responsibility of production elsewhere, namely onto society. They create a secondary labor market, which often involves the most vulnerable of workers: immigrants (often illegal), young women, and the undereducated.

Sweatshop labor systems are most often associated with garment and cigar manufacturing of the period 1880–1920. Sweated labor can also be seen in laundry work, green grocers, and most recently in the "day laborers," often legal or illegal immigrants, who landscape suburban lawns.

Sweatshops became visible through the public exposure given to them by reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in both England and the United States. In 1889–1890, an investigation by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Sweating System brought attention in Britain. In the United States the first public investigations came as a result of efforts to curb tobacco homework, which led to the outlawing of the production of cigars in living quarters in New York State in 1884.

In an effort to eliminate these inhumane conditions, reformers focused on three principle areas: support of labor unions, a more active state that better regulated the economy, and an informed consumer (the national consumers' movement).

Until the late twentieth century, it was assumed that the federal minimum wage and maximum hours legislation

of 1938, part of larger New Deal social and economic reforms, had curtailed sweatshops in the United States. Unfortunately, America rediscovered its sweatshops. In August 1995, federal agencies raided a compound of several apartments in El Monte, California. These residences functioned as a large-scale sweatshop. There, seventy-two illegal Thai immigrants lived and worked in inhumane conditions, sewing sixteen hours a day on garments for several nationally prominent retailers. Discoveries of additional sweatshops led reformers, unionists, and student activists to revive the antisweatshop movement through organizations such as the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and Students Against Sweatshops.


Boris, Eileen. Home to Work: Motherhood and the Politics of Industrial Homework in the United States. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Green, Nancy L. Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.

Ross, Andrew, ed. No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade, and the Rights of Garment Workers. New York: Verso, 1997.

Storrs, Landon R. Y. Civilizing Capitalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Richard A.Greenwald

See alsoBusiness, Regulation of ; Homework ; Piecework ; Wages and Hours of Labor, Regulation of .

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sweat·shop / ˈswetˌshäp/ • n. a factory or workshop, esp. in the clothing industry, where manual workers are employed at very low wages for long hours and under poor conditions.

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sweatshop: see sweating system.

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