sweating system, method of exploiting labor by supplying materials to workers and paying by the piece (see piecework) for work done on those materials in the workers' homes or in small workshops (sweatshops). The system (sometimes known as the cottage industry) evolved especially in those industries that did not require expensive machinery, as in making garments. Employees were typically found among women, children, the elderly, and invalids. The worst aspects associated with this system were long hours (sometimes 15–18 hr a day), very low wages, and unsafe and unsanitary conditions. The term has also been applied to the subcontracting of work to a middleman who has the work done in his home by persons hired by him.
In Great Britain the system first appeared early in the 19th cent. and was not prohibited by law until 1909. In the United States it began in the Civil War period, when the wives and children of soldiers were employed in making uniforms. Before the Industrial Revolution household industries had been customary but were quite different in nature: The household supplied its own materials, marketed the finished product in the neighborhood, and combined its industry with subsistence farming. With the introduction of standardization in industry, the advantages of the low cost of production in the sweating system have lessened. Despite federal regulation, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, sweatshops persist, particularly in the garment industry, where they are often both owned and staffed by immigrants. Consumers have protested against apparel manufacturers, such as Nike, for their use of Asian sweatshops and child labor.
See B. Webb, How Best to Do Away with the Sweating System (1892); J. R. Commons, Trade Unionism and Labor Problems (1905, repr. 1967).