views updated May 29 2018


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 (www.sweatshopwatch.org)to further spread awareness and coalesce activist projects. Corpwatch (www.corpwatch.org) 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


Associated Press. Apple: No Sweatshop IPod Labor. Wired, 18 August 2006. Available from: http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2006/08/71619.

Balko, Radley. Sweatshops and Globalization. A World Connected. Available from: http://www.aworldconnected.org.

Barnes, Edward. Slaves of New York. Time, 2 November 1998, 7275.

Co-op America. Ten Ways to End Sweatshops. Available from: http://www.sweatshops.org/tenways.html.

Corpwatch. Available from: http://www.corpwatch.org/index.php.

Domosh, Mona, and Joni Seager. Putting Women in Place. New York: Guilford Press, 2001.

Esbenshade, Jill. Monitoring Sweatshops: Workers, Consumers, and the Global Apparel Industry. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004.

Evans, Jonny. Apple Responds to iPod Factory Claims. Macworld, 14 June 2006. Available from: http://www.macworld.co.uk/news/index.cfm?home&NewsID=14935.

Gap, Inc. Social Responsibility, 2008. Available from: http://www.gapinc.com/public/SocialResponsibility/socialres.shtml.

Gap, Inc. India Fact Sheet Update, 12 June 2008. Available from: http://www.gapinc.com/public/documents/India_Fact_Sheet_Update.pdf.

Greathead, Scott. Making It Right: Sweatshops, Ethics, and Retailer Responsibility. Chain Store Age, May 2002.

Hartman, Laura P., ed. Rising Above Sweatshops: Innovative Approaches to Global Labor Challenges. New York: Praeger, 2003

Hypocrisy on Immigration; A raid in New England reveals a broken system. The Washington Post, 18 March 2007, B06.

Kernaghan, Charles. Sweatshop Blues: Companies Love Misery. Dollars & Sense, March-April 1999, 1821.

Manu, Joseph. IT Sweatshops Breaking Indians. Wired 11 July 2003. Available from: http://www.wired.com/techbiz/media/news/2003/07/59477.

McDougall, Dan. Child sweatshop shame threatens Gap's ethical image. The Observer, 28 October 2007, 36.

McDougall, Dan. Gap plans 'sweatshop-free' labels. The Observer, 4 November 2007, 38.

Pratt, Mary K. Is Your Outsourcer an IT Sweatshop? Computerworld, 21 April 2008. Available from: http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic&articleId=315482.

Secrets, Lies and Sweatshops. Businessweek, 27 November 2006. Available from: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_48/b4011001.htm?chan=globalbiz_asia_today.

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

The Triangle Factory Fire. The Kheel Center, Catherwood Library, ILR School at Cornell, 2005. Avaiable from http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/narrative1.html.

A World of Sweatshops. Business Week, 6 November 2000.


views updated May 29 2018








Among the definitions the Oxford English Dictionary gives for sweating are: “the practice of doing piecework overtime,” and “the practice of exacting hard work from employees for low wages, especially under a middleman by sub–contract.” These features—piecework and working for a contractor—continue to define contemporary usage of the term and betray its origins in the garment and shoemaking industries of the mid–nineteenth century. Then, as in the early twenty–first century, it was the most vulnerable workers who were “sweated.” That is, it is ethnic, “racial,” or minority immigrants, and mostly women and children, who have worked under these conditions.


The garment industry of the nineteenth century was ideally suited to this organization of production, because the labor–intensive and unskilled sewing work could be subcontracted by manufacturers to an “outside shop.” This might entail scattering the work to several domestic outworkers, or else to small workshops that could be attached to the subcontractor’s tenement housing. The skilled work of cutting and designing continued to be done in the “inside shop” of the manufacturer. In this type of system, the contractor competes for the work by providing the lowest, most competitive bid. Hence, the sole source of profit for contractors stems from the margin between the contracted price and the cost of hiring labor. In other words, the product is “sweated” out of the workers.

The new technologies of production that enabled the mechanization of clothing production in the 1860s also accelerated the process of sweated work. These technologies, including the band–saw cutting machine that cut multiple layers of cloth simultaneously and the sewing machine that replaced hand sewing, led to the creation of ready–to–wear garments and the replacement of skilled male tailors and seamstresses by semiskilled sewing–machine operators working as outworkers. Increasing urbanization expanded the market for ready–made goods and clothing at the same time that the pool of available labor for the industry was growing. Immigrant Jews fleeing eastern Europe, for example, made up large segments of the workforce in both Britain and America. Mechanization also led to the creation of large inside shops with centralized factory production. The historians Ava Baron and Susan Klepp have shown how centralized production in inside shops and decentralized production in outside shops coexisted in various segments of the American garment industry during the nineteenth century. They argue that the terms inside and outside describe processes rather than shops, because even large firms centralized only certain work processes, such as sewing, while others were conducted outside the shops. Thus, both the contracting system and manufacturing flourished under sweating conditions at the end of the century.


This period also saw the rise of workers’ organizing. In 1900, garment workers in New York City formed the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) to protest poor working conditions in the industry. The union’s first strike was staged in 1909 by 20,000 shirtwaist makers, who were mostly women and children. Another strike, by 50,000 male cloak–makers, took place the following year. Along with a public outcry against sweatshops, these strikes ushered in a new era of industrial democracy. State regulations protecting workers were progressively strengthened, culminating in guarantees of workers’ right to organize in 1935 and the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), guaranteeing a minimum hourly wage, in 1938.

In the decades that followed, strong union membership and government enforcement of garment industry regulations seemed to have led to the abatement of sweat–shops. But in reality garment manufacturers had begun relocating from New York to the nonunionized South as early as the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1970s the job loss was precipitous, as runaway shops continued to move south and southwest, to California, and finally offshore. At the same time, low–cost imports from newly industrializing East Asian countries hurt domestic producers, and in the 1980s the trend by manufacturers and retailers to source production globally continued, with apparel imports surpassing domestic production by the mid–1990s. Special trade regulations have enabled U.S. manufacturers to utilize offshore plants as assembly subcon–tractors (“outside shops”) in Mexico. Under these regulations, manufacturers are allowed to reimport the goods assembled in Mexico, with a tariff charged only on the cost of labor inputs. These offshore assembly plants, or maquiladoras, sew the cut cloth that is provided by U.S. manufacturers and retailers. Cheap labor by young women is abundant in Mexico, and this model of maquila production has spread from apparel to the assembly of shoes, electronics, auto parts, white goods (major household appliances), data processing, and many other products and services.

The globalization of production has led to what sweat–shop critics call a “race to the bottom,” as big retailers such as Wal–Mart, and brand labels such as Nike and Old Navy, source manufacturing from cheaper and cheaper locations, pressuring others to follow suit. It also exerts downward pressure on wages in the United States, where the sweat–shop has reemerged with a vengeance since the early 1980s. One solution is to raise wage levels to a living wage, which would result in only a minimal additional cost to consumers because apparel workers in developing countries earn only 1 to 2 percent of the retail cost of what they produce. Sweatshop advocates, on the other hand, argue that these jobs offer an improvement over alternative work opportunities for Third World workers.


As in the past, immigrants and women are regarded as the cheapest and most exploitable workers, and they continue to make up the bulk of the garment workforce in the United States. The ethnic composition of the workforce in sweatshops varies by location: in Los Angeles, Latino immigrants outnumber Asian immigrants, such as the Koreans, Vietnamese and Chinese; whereas in San Francisco it is the Chinese who predominate, and in New York Mexican and Equadorian immigrants have now joined Chinese to form the vast majority of garment sweatshop workers. These patterns have shifted over time to reflect the changing profile of immigrants in the country. In the early twentieth century, it was Jewish and Italian immigrants who worked in the sweatshops of New York and Los Angeles, and in the 1990s, Mexicans and Chinese replaced the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who worked in New York’s sweatshops in the 1980s. In the face of increased global competitiveness, runaway shops from the unionized Northeast sought new sources of cheap non–union labor in the South. As a result, black garment workers, who had been incorporated into the southern apparel industry in the 1970s, have seen their work opportunities diminish. According to scholars Evelyn Blumenberg and Paul Ong, although blacks made up about 28 percent of the garment labor force in 1990 in North Carolina, then the epicenter of the industry in the South, and were an important source of employment for black workers, the large–scale garment production that was typical in the area has rapidly been diminished by capital flight to offshore production sites. Because of import competition, even brand–name manufacturers who had previously sourced to inside shops with union labor began outsourcing to small shops within the United States. This has led to a dramatic rise of employment in small shops in urban cities, where labor violations are more common and regulations are harder for the government to monitor. Workers dispersed into small workplaces are also harder to organize, and hence less likely to unionize.

For recent immigrants, language barriers, varying educational backgrounds, and a lack of knowledge regarding employment opportunities and job application procedures make working within what sociologists term “ethnic enclaves” (sections of the job market that are dominated by ethnic entrepreneurs and workers) more attractive. Scholars have pointed to the contradictory outcomes of being employed in such enclaves for workers’ perceptions of class. When contractors are immigrants who employ workers from their own ethnic groups, this can lead to super–exploitative conditions of employment, in which

potential class conflicts are displaced by a shared ethnic identity or ethnic solidarity. For example, providing employment in ethnic and linguistic enclaves to recent migrants with little prior work experience, allowing workers’ children into the workplace, advancing workers personal loans, and invoking personal ties with workers through shared ties to their place of origin enables employers to get such workers to work longer hours for less than minimum wages but still be viewed as benevolent benefactors by these workers. In other instances, when hierarchies between ethnic groups exist, such as those between Korean sweatshop owners and Latino garment workers in Los Angeles, class conflicts are permeated by, and expressed through, racial stereotypes. Notwithstanding the importance of race and ethnicity to the sweatshop economy, the problem with viewing sweatshops as ethnic enclaves is that the class relations between contractors and their workers are erroneously analyzed in isolation from the brand–name manufacturers and retailers that drive this mode of employment.


Historically, because it occurred in largely unregulated settings, sweated work was more accessible than factory labor to married women. Factory work demanded a full workday and a long–term commitment to work free of absenteeism or temporary withdrawals from the work–force, especially in the era before legislative provisions for maternity leave were put in place. Sweated outwork, on the other hand, required little training, could be taken up periodically, and did not have to be full–time work because it was paid by piece wages. Moreover, domestic outwork enabled poor and working–class wives and mothers to weave industrial work into their domestic reproductive routines.

The gendered division of domestic labor helps explain why industrial homework has been predominantly undertaken by women, but it does not explain why sweatshop workers, most of whom work overtime instead of part–time, are principally women, and especially women of color. For an explanation of this phenomenon, one must look instead to the ideological constructions of race and gender. The view of women’s work as exceptional and temporary–and hence as supplemental to a male breadwinner’s “family wage”–is a pervasive ideology that validates it as cheaper than male labor. Sweatshop jobs are feminized because they pay less than a living wage, and this sex–typing works alongside the naturalization of the actual skills required for work– such as the notion that women have naturally nimble fingers suited to sewing. Racial stereotypes of Latinos and Asians as hard and docile workers, and of immigrants (many of whom come from ex–colonial countries) as economically desperate with a history of manual and or agricultural labor, also justify their suitability for low–paid and low–skilled work. The precarious social location of immigrants, especially of undocumented workers, combined with their relative lack of knowledge regarding alternative work opportunities, translates into their weaker bargaining power in the labor market.


On May 10, 1993, a fire at the Kader toy factory on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand, killed 188 workers (174 of whom were women) and seriously injured 494 others. It has been described as the worst industrial fire in the history of capitalism, and certainly in the history of the textile, clothing, and footwear industries. The workers—some as young as thirteen—were assembling toys for familiar American brands such as Fisher–Price and Tyco, and for retailers such as Wal–Mart and Toys ‘R’ Us. Observers have been naturally drawn to comparisons with the previous fire that held this distinction for over eighty years: the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City that killed 146 garment workers, most of whom were immigrant women. Despite the eighty–two years separating these disasters, there are eerie similarities between them. In both cases, workers were unable to exit through doors that were either blocked by flammable work materials or locked by management to deter theft. In Thailand, as in New York, women workers were trapped by the fire and jumped out of windows several stories high to escape the flames. The 1911 disaster impelled consumers to unite with the cause of immigrant women workers, resulting in new workplace health and safety legislation. In 1998, however, the death and maiming of Third World women workers toiling in outsourced sweatshops overseas barely captured the attention of the U.S. media or consumers. The fate of the global sweatshop may rest on conscientious consumption by citizens who want to be more than just price–conscious consumers and who choose instead to pay for workers’ dignity and respect.

SEE ALSO Puerto Ricans


Bao, Xiaolan. 2001. Holding Up More than Half the Sky: Chinese Women Garment Workers in New York City, 1948–92. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Baron, Ava, and Susan E. Klepp. 1984. “‘If I Didn’t Have My

Sewing Machine …’: Women and Sewing Machine Technology.” In A Needle, A Bobbin, A Strike: Women Needleworkers in America, edited by Joan M. Jensen and Sue Davidson, 20–59. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Blumenberg, Evelyn, and Paul Ong. 1994. “Labor Squeeze and

Ethnic/Racial Composition in the U.S. Apparel Industry.” In Global Production: The Apparel Industry in the Pacific Rim, edited by Edna Bonacich, Lucie Cheng, Norma Chinchilla, Nora Hamilton, and Paul Ong, 309–327. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Bonacich, Edna. 1994. “Asians in the Los Angeles Garment Industry.” In The New Asian Immigration in Los Angeles and Global Restructuring, edited by Paul Ong, Edna Bonacich, and Lucie Cheng, 137–163. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Esbenshade, Jill. 2004. Monitoring Sweatshops: Workers, Consumers, and the Global Apparel Industry. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Louie, Miriam Ching Yoon. 2001. Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take on the Global Factory. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Pessar, Patricia. 1994. “Sweatshop Workers and Domestic Ideologies: Dominican Women in New York’s Apparel Industry.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 18 (1): 127–142.

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

Ross, Robert J. S. 2004. Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

U.S. General Accounting Office. 1988. “Sweatshops in the U.S.” Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Available from http://archive.gao.gov/d17t6/136973.pdf.

Jayati Lal


views updated Jun 11 2018


Sweatshops are workplaces run by unscrupulous employers who pay low wages to workers for long hours under unsafe and unhealthy conditions. For example, in a clothing sweatshop in California in the early 2000s, Asian women sewed for ten to twelve hours per day, six or seven days per week, in a dim and unventilated factory loft where the windows were sealed and the emergency doors locked. The workers had no pension or health-care benefits and were paid at a piece rate that fell far below the legal minimum wage. When the company went bankrupt, the owner sold off the inventory, locked out the workers without paying them, moved his machines in the middle of the night to another factory, and reopened under a different name.

The term "sweatshop" is derived from the "sweating system" of production and its use of "sweated labor." At the heart of the sweating system are the contractors. A large company distributes its production to small contractors who profit from the difference between what they charge the company and what they spend on production. The work is low skilled and labor intensive, so the contractors do best when their workers are paid the least. Workers employed under these conditions are said to be doing sweated labor.

Sweatshops are often used in the clothing industry because it is easy to separate higher and lower skilled jobs and contract out the lower skilled ones. Clothing companies can do their own designing, marketing, and cutting, and contract out sewing and finishing work. New contractors can start up easily; all they need is a few sewing machines in a rented apartment or factory loft located in a neighborhood where workers can be recruited.

Sweatshops make the most fashion-oriented clothing—women's and girls'—because production has to be flexible, change quickly, and done in small batches. In less style-sensitive sectors—men's and boys' wear, hosiery, and knit products—there is less change and longer production runs, and clothing can be made competitively in large factories using advanced technology.

Since their earliest days, sweatshops have relied on immigrant labor, usually women, who were desperate for work under any pay and conditions. Sweatshops in New York City, for example, opened in Chinatown, the mostly Jewish Lower East Side, and Hispanic neighborhoods in the boroughs. Sweatshops in Seattle are near neighborhoods of Asian immigrants.

The evolution of sweatshops in London and Paris— two early and major centers of the garment industry— followed the pattern in New York City. First, garment manufacturing was localized in a few districts: the Sentier of Paris and the Hackney, Haringey, Islington, the Tower Hamlets, and Westminster boroughs of London. Second, the sweatshops employed mostly immigrants, at first men but then primarily women, who had few job alternatives. The source of immigrant workers changed over time. During the late nineteenth and twentieth century, most workers in the garment sweatshops of Paris were Germans and Belgians, then Polish and Russian Jews and, into the 2000s, Yugoslavs, Turks, Southeast Asians, Chinese and North African Jews. Eastern European Jews initially worked in London sweatshops, but most of these workers were replaced by Cypriots and Bengali immigrants. Also, sweatshop conditions in the two cities were the result of roughly similar forces; in the nineteenth century, production shifted to lower-grade, ready-made clothing that could be made by less skilled workers; skill requirements further declined with the introduction of the sewing machine and the separation of cutting and less skilled sewing work; frequent style changes, particularly in ready-made women's wear, led to production in small lots and lower entry barriers to new entrepreneurs who sought contracts for sewing; and, as contractors competed among themselves, they tried to lower labor costs by reducing workers' pay, increasing hours, and allowing working conditions to deteriorate.

In developing countries, clothing sweatshops tend to be widely dispersed geographically rather than concentrated in a few districts of major cities, and they often operate alongside sweatshops, some of which are very large, that produce toys, shoes (primarily athletic shoes), carpets, and athletic equipment (particularly baseballs and soccer balls), among other goods. Sweatshops of all types tend to have child labor, forced unpaid overtime, and widespread violations of workers' freedom of association (i.e., the right to unionize). The underlying cause of sweat-shops in developing nations—whether in China, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean or India and Bangladesh—is the intense cost-cutting done by contractors who compete among themselves for orders from larger contractors, major manufacturers, and retailers.

Clothing was not always produced with the sweating system. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, seamstresses made clothing by working long hours at home for low pay. They sewed precut fabric to make inexpensive clothes. Around the 1880s, clothing work shifted to contract shops that opened in the apartments of the recently arrived immigrants or in small, unsafe factories.

The spread of sweatshops was reversed in the United States in the years following a horrific fire in 1911 that destroyed the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a women's blouse manufacturer near Washington Square in New York City. The company employed five hundred workers in notoriously poor conditions. One hundred and forty-six workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian women, perished in the fire; many jumped out windows to their deaths because the building's emergency exits were locked. The Triangle fire made the public acutely aware of conditions in the clothing industry and led to pressure for closer regulation. The number of sweatshops gradually declined as unions organized and negotiated improved wages and conditions and as government regulations were stiffened (particularly under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which imposed a minimum wage and required overtime pay for work of more than forty hours per week).

Unionization and government regulation never completely eliminated clothing sweatshops, and many continued on the edges of the industry; small sweatshops were difficult to locate and could easily close and move to avoid union organizers and government inspectors. In the 1960s, sweatshops began to reappear in large numbers among the growing labor force of immigrants, and by the 1980s sweatshops were again "business as usual." In the 1990s, atrocious conditions at a sweatshop once again shocked the public.

In 1995, police raided a clandestine sweatshop in El Monte, California (outside Los Angeles), where seventy-two illegal Thai immigrants were sewing clothing in near slavery in a locked and gated apartment complex. They sewed for up to seventeen hours per day and earned about sixty cents per hour. When they were not working, they slept ten to a room. The El Monte raid showed an unsuspecting public that sweatshop owners continued to prey on vulnerable immigrants and were ignoring the toughened workplace regulations. Under intense public pressure, the federal government worked with unions, industry representatives, and human rights organizations to attack the sweatshop problem. Large companies pledged to learn more about their contractors and avoid sweat-shops. Congress proposed legislation that would make clothing manufacturers responsible for the conditions at their contractors. College students formed coalitions with labor unions and human rights organizations to organize consumer boycotts against clothing made in sweatshops. Despite these efforts, the old sweatshops continued and many new ones were opened.

In the early twenty-first century, about a third of garment manufacturers in the United States operate without licenses, keep no records, pay in cash, and pay no overtime. In New York City, about half of the garment manufacturers could be considered sweatshops because they repeatedly violate pay and workplace regulations. In Los Angeles, the nation's new sweatshop center, around three-quarters of the clothing contractors pay less than the minimum wage and regularly violate health regulations.

The resurgence of sweatshops in the United States is a byproduct of globalization—the lowering of trade barriers throughout the world—and the widespread use of sweatshops to make garments in developing countries. American clothing companies must compete against producers elsewhere that can hire from a nearly endless supply of cheap labor.

In the clothing industry, one sees a classic case of the "race to the bottom" that can come with unrestrained globalization. As trade barriers are reduced, clothing retailers face intensive competitive pressure and, squeezed for profits, they demand cheaper goods from manufacturers. The manufacturers respond by paying less to contractors, and the contractors lower their piece rates and spend less money maintaining working conditions. Quite often, the contractors move abroad because the "race to the bottom" also happens worldwide. Developing countries outbid each other with concessions (for example, wages are set below the legal minimum, child labor and unhealthy work conditions are overlooked) to attract foreign investors.

The fight against sweatshops is never a simple matter; there are mixed motives and unexpected outcomes. For example, unions object to sweatshops because they are genuinely concerned about the welfare of sweated labor, but they also want to protect their own members' jobs from low-wage competition even if this means ending the jobs of the working poor in other countries.

Also, sweatshops can be evaluated from moral and economic perspectives. Morally, it is easy to declare sweatshops unacceptable because they exploit and endanger workers. But from an economic perspective, many now argue that without sweatshops developing countries might not be able to compete with industrialized countries and achieve export growth. Working in a sweatshop may be the only alternative to subsistence farming, casual labor, prostitution, and unemployment. At least most sweatshops in other countries, it is argued, pay their workers above the poverty level and provide jobs for women who are otherwise shut out of manufacturing. And American consumers have greater purchasing power and a higher standard of living because of the availability of inexpensive imports.

The intense low-cost competition spurred by the opening of world markets is creating a resurgence of sweatshops in the United States. The response has been a large and energetic anti-sweatshop movement aimed at greater unionization, better government regulation, and consumer boycotts against goods produced by sweated labor. But despite the historical rise and fall and rise again of sweatshops in the clothing industry, their fundamental cause remains the same. The sweating system continues because contractors can profit by offering low wages and harsh conditions to workers in the United States and abroad who have no alternatives.

See alsoGlobalization .


Piore, Michael. "The Economics of the Sweatshop." In No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade, and the Rights of Garment Workers. Edited by Andrew Ross. New York: Verso, 1997, pp. 135–142. A brief, well-written review of the economic factors behind the operation of sweatshops in the garment industry.

Rath, Jan, ed. Unraveling the Rag Trade: Immigrant Entrepreneurship in Seven World Cities. New York: Berg, 2002. A collection of articles about immigrant workers and entrepreneurs in the emerging garment industries of seven major production centers including New York, Paris, and London.

Rosen, Ellen Israel. Making Sweatshops: The Globalization of the U.S. Apparel Industry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. A comprehensive study of the impact of globalization on sweatshops in the American garment industry, with detailed analyses of their historical development and present condition.

Stein, Leon, ed. Out of the Sweatshop: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy. New York: Quadrangle, 1977. A collection of classic essays, news stories, and workers' firsthand accounts of sweatshops with particularly strong sections on immigrants, early sweatshops, and union organizing and strikes.

Von Drehle, David. Triangle: The Fire that Changed America. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003. A vivid and informative account of the 1911 Triangle fire—the deadliest workplace fire in American history and an early turning point in the evolution of sweatshops and the government regulation of work.

Gary Chaison


views updated May 21 2018



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.

Free the Slaves. 2004. Hidden Slaves: Forced Labor in the United States. Washington, DC: Free the Slaves, and Berkeley: University of California, Human Rights Center.

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.

United Nations. 2000. The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Geneva, Switzerland: Author.

U.S. Department of Labor. 2004. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, as Amended (WH publication 1318). Washington, DC: Author.

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.

World Bank. 2007. Global Economic Prospects: Managing the Next Wave of Globalization. Washington, DC: Author.

Diane Flaherty


views updated Jun 08 2018


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 .


views updated May 29 2018

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.