Did you know that billions in public tax dollars now perpetuate and subsidize sweatshops and child labor abuses? Incredibly, public school district, city, state and other government agencies across the country routinely purchase goods such as law enforcement uniforms, computers, office supplies and sporting goods that were made by sweatshop labor.

Global competition requires that countries vying for foreign investment keep their production costs low and so many of these countries have fallen into the habit of reducing worker protections in order to entice multinational corporations to set up factories in their countries. The penny-pinching corporate habit of seeking “discount bargains” has now spread to the consumer market and it is creating a fatal squeeze on factory owners and their employees. The result is forced overtime, low wages, punishments and fines for slow work and mistakes, worker intimidation, child labor, and other abuses—otherwise known as sweatshop conditions.

According to the United Nations Human Development Reports for 2002 and 2003, extreme poverty and hunger, after decreasing in the 1970s and 1980s, have both been increasing in the 1990s, particularly in countries that have adopted the one-size-fits-all World Trade Organization rules for trade and economic development. (The United Nations argues that policy changes, not charity, are necessary to overcome poverty).[1]

Sweater: employer who underpays and overworks his employees, especially a contractor for piecework in the tailoring trade. ( Standard Dictionary of the English Language, 1895)

Sweatshop: A usually small manufacturing establishment employing workers under unfair and unsanitary conditions. (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, 1993)

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THE FACTS

What is a sweatshop? Under such pressures [ of globalization], factory and farm managers typically pass on the costs and risks to the weakest links in the chain: the workers they employ. For many producers, their labour strategy is simple: make it flexible and make it cheap.[2]

  • Sweatshops are most frequently defined as a shop or factory in which workers are employed for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions. That definition is expanding to include any place where workers are exposed to extreme exploitation including hazardous working conditions, arbitrary discipline, low wages, and denial of dignity and basic human rights.[3]
  • Clothing is not the only sweatshop product, there are a vast variety of sweatshop products on the market currently: shoes, toys, rugs, coffee, chocolate, bananas, etc.[4] Meat packers, poultry processors, asbestos removers and farm workers are often also subject to sweatshop-like conditions in the workplace.[5]
  • For a dress that is made in a sweatshop and retails for $100, the workers usually only receive $6.00, that’s less than 1% for all the workers. The retailer is at the top of the profit hierarchy, keeping $50 of the price of the garment.[6]
  • The wage disparity between the workers and those that are profiting from the sweatshop system are blatantly apparent when one looks at the hourly rates of pay for corporate CEO’s: Philip Marineau (Levi Straus & Co.) makes $11,971/hr, Tommy Hilfiger makes $10,769/hr, Ralf Lauren makes $2,163/hr, Paul Fireman (Reebok) makes $1,490/hr and Philip Knight (Nike) makes $1,312/hr.[7]
  • The money allocated for Marineau’s recent raise to $25.1 million/year, or $11,971/hr (nearly 15 times what he earned in 2001), could have accommodated a 50 percent pay increase for more than 7,500 minimum wage workers in Saipan (where Levi’s has a plant), helping to lift whole communities out of poverty.[8]
  • Sweatshop employees do not generally earn what is known as an hourly wage, instead many are paid a piece-rate; which is a set (but often arbitrarily changed) rate of pay per piece of product the worker completes. More often than not, the piece-rate for workers is not sufficient enough to take care of their families and subject to quota pressures that if not reached by the employee may result in non-payment by the factory owners.[9] Therefore,  more often than not, the average “hourly wage” for sweatshop workers varies across the globe, but none of them offer adequate means for workers to provide for their families: $1.75 in Mexico, $1.08 in El Salvador, $0.86 in China, $0.71 in India, $0.24 in Indonesia and $0.23 in Pakistan.[10]

Who works in sweatshops? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, workers on American Samoa “were beaten…and provided food so inadequate that some were walking skeletons…” while producing clothes for major U.S. retailers such as Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, Sears, and Target.[11]

  • 90% of sweatshop workers are women.[12]
  • Generally speaking, sweatshop workers are young women, employed due to financial constraints on their families and so they must seek employment at the sake of their own education.[13] Many are rural folks who have migrated to urban centers due to neoliberal policies that have forced small farmers and businesses to sell their products at drastically reduced prices on the global market.[14]
  • “Guest worker” schemes are a popular way of enticing desperate people, more often than not young women, from poverty stricken nations to work in sweatshop factories. Ex: Unbeknownst to many women and others, they are promised high paying jobs “in America” and charged $6,000 (more or less in some cases) for a three year work contract. Many ddo not find their dreams fulfilled and instead find themselves, “…locked behind barbed wire, held under conditions of indentured servitude, forced to work 19 hours a day, seven days a week, beaten, sexually harassed, and cheated of hundreds of thousands of dollars owed to them.”[15]
  • It is estimated by the International Labor Organization (ILO) that 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 work in developing countries (61% in Asia, 32% in Africa and 7% in Latin America). For the majority of the children, their employment is suspect: many work against their will due to financial constraints on their families; their employment serves to deny them a change at a normal childhood or an education; some are confined within the factory grounds (not allowed to see their families) and/or chained to machines they work at; almost all of them face unprovoked beatings; while many are abducted and forced to work against their will.[16]
  • In the United States, the majority of sweatshop workers are recent or undocumented workers, unaware of their rights (even as undocumented workers) as laborers and frequently not union members. In order for the sweatshops to make the most profit, they must employ people that are largely ignorant of their rights as workers and so sweatshops predominantly employ: non-unionized workers; employees signed to short-term contracts or no contracts at all. Some of the conditions these workers are illegally subject to: women are not allowed maternity leave and have been, in many circumstances, strong-armed to take birth control and are subject to monthly pregnancy tests; sick days are disallowed and can be used as a reason for firing; bathroom breaks are often times regularly denied; work days more often than not consist of 14 hour days or more that are worked 6 to 7 days per week.[17]

For more than 150 years, the sewing machine has been, and today remains, the best way of making clothes. The basic method of garment production continues to be a worker, usually a woman, sitting or standing at a sewing machine and piecing together portions of cloth. Every blouse, every pair of jeans, every t-shirt, and every pair of shoes has to be tailored by a person doing the work. Everything we wear is made by someone.[18]

When were sweatshops created?

  • The concept of sweatshop labor has been around for centuries, the silver mines and galleys of ancient Rome are just two such examples.[19]
  • The Industrial Revolution saw the organized and increased use of sweatshop labor practices to provide maximum profits.
  • In the 19th Century, the term “sweatshop” referred to a system of subcontracting in which manufacturers farmed out work to competing contractors. The contractors “sweated” profit from workers by paying them rock-bottom wages for long working hours under dangerous conditions.[20]
  • These early 19th century workers were predominantly seamstresses, spread throughout American cities; they often worked from home (so that they could also fulfill their domestic obligations and rearing of children), stitching together bundles of pre-cut fabric into clothing for Southern slaves, Western miners and New England gentlemen. Dressmakers, different from these seamstresses, were responsible for producing whole dresses and could make a descent wage; but seamstresses were only paid by the piece, working at least 16 hour days and often subject to retailers finding the smallest of faults with their garments and refusing to pay for work done.[21]
  • During this time, contractors were engaged in fierce competition and recent immigrants were desperate for work, which resulted in the prime conditions for exploitation of workers. Many small apartments in tenement buildings were converted to contract shops and doubled as living quarters. Still, the vast majority of these immigrants had to lean on charity to support their families.[22]
  • Sweatshop production came out of hibernation in the late 1960s. A combination of forces at home and abroad contributed to their reappearance: changes in the retail industry, a growing global economy, increased reliance on contracting, and a large pool of immigrant labor in the U.S.[23]

Where are sweatshops located?

  • The poorer a country is, the more likely it has sweatshop factories within its borders. Third World countries are most likely to not have tough labor regulations in place and therefore its citizens are more susceptible to labor violations by local, national and foreign multinational corporations.[24]
  • 200 countries have thousands of garment factories that employ tens of millions of laborers as sweatshop workers.[25]
  • These factories are also here in the U.S. In fact, L.A. is the “sweatshop capital” of the U.S., with 67% of its factories underpaying workers.[26]
  • 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.[27]

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Dispelling the Myths About Solutions to Sweatshops

Being employed in a sweatshop for such low pay is better than not being employed at all.

  • According to a 2003 National Labor Committee report: “…a Honduran worker sewing clothing for Wal-Mart at a rate of 43 cents an hour, after spending money on daily meals and transportation to work… is left with around 80 cents per day for rent, bills, child care, school costs, medicines, emergencies, and other expenses. Not surprisingly, many workers are forced to take out loans at high interest rates and can’t even think about saving money to improve their lives as they struggle to meet their daily needs.”[39]

An increase in wages to workers results in higher consumer prices.

  • With foreign sweatshop workers’ pay amounting to as little as ½ of 1% of the consumer price, even a doubling of workers’ pay would only affect the retail price incrementally.[40]
  • A 1997 report conducted by Global Exchange showed that relatively little impact to corporations financial situations results from paying workers wages that can keep them out of poverty. Ex: when regarding Nike’s employees’ wages in China, Vietnam, and Indonesia, “… the report shows that the company could use a mere 2% of its advertising budget to raise 25,000 Vietnamese workers out of poverty by increasing their daily wages from $1.60 to a decent $3.00 (the living wage in Vietnam according to the Vietnam Labor Watch).”[41]
  • A 1999 survey by Marymount University’s Center for Ethical Concerns found that the majority of consumers would pay more to ensure that workers making the products they buy are treated fairly. The 1999 survey is just one in a series of yearly surveys that have found that increasingly, consumers believe it is the responsibility of both retailers and manufacturers to guarantee that workers rights are being upheld. Overall, consumers agreed that they would be willing to pay a 5% mark up to ensure that decent working conditions are upheld.[42]

It cost more to monitor corporations’ ties to sweatshops, and that comes out of taxpayers’ pockets.

  • According to Co-op America, “… most corporations already track their goods to the subcontractor or factory level in order to monitor the quality of their products… Around the world, name-brand retailers are investing in new technologies—information systems, international shipping firms, quality assurance monitoring, business-to-business software, bar codes, universal numbering systems, and more—all of which can facilitate better oversight for the factories at products’ points of origin.”[43]

Boycotting is the only way to make corporations responsible.

  • While sweatshop factories that produce many goods we buy here in America are deleterious to workers’ human rights, they do provide critical employment for many people that have no other employment options. Simply boycotting a company may have an undesirable result: the company can “cut and run” from a factory location and leave hundreds or thousands of people unemployed. Boycotts should be left to the workers themselves, in this way they are more directly responsible for negotiations with the company.[44]
  • According to Co-op America, “A good way to help improve conditions for workers is to contact the retailers and manufacturers of the products you buy and ask for guarantees that their workers were paid a living wage and given basic rights. Include the tag from inside a garment with your letter to let the company know you are already a customer. If you can find the product that you need produced by a company you know to be responsible in its labor practices, you should reward that company with your business.”[45]

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San Francisco’s Relationship with Sweatshops

Generations of Asian Pacific immigrants and their descendants have been part of the American sweatshop experience, particularly as seamstresses and other workers. During the nineteenth century, they made jeans, work clothes, and shoes in big cities and small towns from San Francisco to New England. After World War II, many Japanese American women, in returning to Los Angeles and other West Coast locales after being incarcerated in internment camps, worked in sweatshops to help their families regain their financial footing. Today, they represent a significant proportion of the workers as well as contractors of garment industries in Los Angeles, New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, and other metropolitan areas.[28]

  • In 1990, the Bay Area hosted over 30,000 garment factory workers. Movement overseas has created a drastic decline in the number of factories and consequently those employed in these jobs, down to only 3,500 workers as of January 2005. The state Department of Industrial Relations listed 204 garment factories in San Francisco; in 1998, it listed 406.[29]
  • According to the State Employment Development Department, sewing machine operators in 2004 were reportedly earning an average of $357/wk in the San Francisco metropolitan area; many of these workers are Chinese immigrants that have basic levels of education and do not speak English fluently.[30]
  • South of Market district, the Mission, Potrero Hill and other industrial areas in San Francisco serve as the locations of the majority of the factories, usually within rundown buildings.[31]
  • Wins of California, Inc. located here in San Francisco is contracted by such customers as the U.S. Army and Air Force, Wal-mart, Sears and Kmart. The garment producer was under attack in 2001 for back wages owed to 200 employees, mostly Chinese immigrants, totally $850,000.[32]

“NO SWEAT” Nation-wide Campaigns

  • The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 officially prohibited sweatshops. Due to understaffing at the Department of Labor and the inefficiency of monitoring systems, as well as the increasing pressure and tendency of corporations to contract out manufacturing to foreign locations, the legislation’s results have not been as favorable to the average worker as they were intended.[33]
  • As of 1997, 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. Additionally, during President Clinton’s terms in office, an Apparel Industry Task Force was created; made up of both labor rights and corporate interest groups, the Task Force was designed to address the issues surrounding sweatshops but in the end lacked real “teeth” to address many of the most important issues of workers.[34]
  • In recent decades numerous organizations have sprouted up around the country and world wide to take up the anti-sweatshop issue and defend the rights of workers everywhere.
  • Currently, anti-sweatshop laws have already been passed nationally in 4 states (including California), 28 school districts, 10 counties and 26 cities.[35]
  • The city of Los Angeles recently passed the most stringent of the anti-sweatshop ordinances to date, ensuring not only that the city no longer procures any supplies or services from sweatshop contractors and subcontractors, they city has devoted substantial funding for the monitoring and enforcement of the ordinance. In addition, an oversight committee will be formed, including local, national and international activists.[36]
  • Much of the Los Angeles anti-sweatshop procurement ordinance success is due to the No More Sweatshops! campaign, which is currently seeking to spread its campaign to cities across the country.

The Bay Area joins the No More Sweatshops! Campaign

  • San Francisco spends nearly $1 billion on goods and services every year. 
  • The city procures such items and services as: vehicles: cars, trucks, vans, petroleum: fuel/lubricants, office supplies, printed forms, paper, computer hardware and software, food and food services- for hospitals and jails, animal feed and supplies, medical equipment and supplies, pharmaceuticals, laboratory equipment and supplies, castings, chemicals, institutional clothing and laundry service, electrical supplies, lamps, glass, pipe, fittings, valves, hardware, tools, locks, shovels, rakes, lumber; services such as: janitorial, security guard, pest control; construction projects such as: buildings, street repair, park and playground improvements; services such as: management consulting, accounting and auditing, medical, legal, computer software design and consulting, architecture and engineering, facilities management.[37]
  • Back in June 1997, San Francisco signed a “No Sweatshop” public purchasing resolution, which was passed by the Board of Supervisors; with a $400 million procurement budget, the city hoped to have a huge impact on city suppliers.[38]
  • Due to the inability to back up the passing of the resolution with a stringent enforcement strategy IN 1997, the No More Sweatshops! campaign has brought to issue to the table once again


[1] Clean Clothes Connection, 2/24/05, http://www.cleanclothesconnection.org/sweatshopqa.htm.

 

[2] “Trading away our rights: Women working in global supply chains.” Oxfam, 2/04, http://www.oxfam.org.uk/what_we_do/issues/trade/trading_rights.htm.

[3] “What is a Sweatshop?”, National Retail Federation Foundation, 2/21/05 http://www.sweatshops-retail.org/nrf%20website/sweatshop%20def.htm.

[4] Vegan Peace, 2/21/05, http://www.veganpeace.com/sweatshops/sweatshops_and_child_labor.htm.

[5] Moberg, David, “Work Ethics,” In These Times magazine, 3/31/97, http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/New_Global_Economy/WorkEthics_ITT.html.

[6] Sweatshop Watch, http://sweatshopwatch.org/swatch/questions.

[7] Sweatshop Watch, http://sweatshopwatch.org/swatch/questions.

[8] Co-op America, 2/24/05, http://www.sweatshops.org/faqs.html.

[9] “Piece Rates: A viable incentive for improving productivity?” Pursuit Magazine online, June-July 2002 volume. http://www.pursuit.co.za/archive/junjul02_piece.htm.

[10] Sweatshop Watch, http://sweatshopwatch.org/swatch/questions.

[11] Clean Clothes Connection, 2/24/05, http://www.cleanclothesconnection.org/sweatshopqa.htm.

[12] Given, Olivia, “Frequently Asked Questions About Sweatshops and Women Workers,” Feminist Against Sweatshops, 1997,  http://www.feminist.org/other/sweatshops/sweatfaq.html.

[13] Given, Olivia, “Frequently Asked Questions About Sweatshops and Women Workers,” Feminist Against Sweatshops, 1997,  http://www.feminist.org/other/sweatshops/sweatfaq.html.

[14] Clean Clothes Connection, 2/24/05, http://www.cleanclothesconnection.org/sweatshopqa.htm.

[15] Clean Clothes Connection, 2/24/05, http://www.cleanclothesconnection.org/sweatshopqa.htm.

[16] Vegan Peace, 2/21/05, http://www.veganpeace.com/sweatshops/sweatshops_and_child_labor.htm.

[17] Given, Olivia, “Frequently Asked Questions About Sweatshops and Women Workers,” Feminist Against Sweatshops, 1997,  http://www.feminist.org/other/sweatshops/sweatfaq.html.

[18] Global Exchange, 2/21/05, http://www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/sweatshops/sweatshopsfaq.html.

[19] “Sweatshops in America: From The Jungle to El Monte,” National Retail Federation Foundation, 2/24/05,  http://www.sweatshops-retail.org/nrf%20website/history.htm.

[20] Clean Clothes Connection, 2/24/05, http://www.cleanclothesconnection.org/sweatshopqa.htm.

[21] Liebhold, Peter and Harry Rubenstein, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place:  A History of American Sweatshops 1820-Present,” History Matters online, July 1998, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/145.

[22] Liebhold, Peter and Harry Rubenstein, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place:  A History of American Sweatshops 1820-Present,” History Matters online, July 1998, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/145.

[23] Liebhold, Peter and Harry Rubenstein, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place:  A History of American Sweatshops 1820-Present,” History Matters online, July 1998, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/145.

[24] Given, Olivia, “Frequently Asked Questions About Sweatshops and Women Workers,” Feminist Against Sweatshops, 1997,  http://www.feminist.org/other/sweatshops/sweatfaq.html.

[25] Sweatshop Watch, http://sweatshopwatch.org/swatch/questions.

[26] Sweatshop Watch, http://sweatshopwatch.org/swatch/questions.

[27] Given, Olivia, “Frequently Asked Questions About Sweatshops and Women Workers,” Feminist Against Sweatshops, 1997,  http://www.feminist.org/other/sweatshops/sweatfaq.html.

[28] “Sweatshops,” Saxakali People of Color Portal online, 7/02/00, http://www.saxakali.com/immigration/ss1.htm.

[29] Hua, Vanessa, “Lifting of import quotas a blow to garment factories: Bay Area apparel industry tattered by overseas competition — immigrant workers try to start over after layoffs,” SF Gate online, 1/18/05, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/01/18/MNG49AS6ND1.DTL.

[30] Hua, Vanessa, “Lifting of import quotas a blow to garment factories: Bay Area apparel industry tattered by overseas competition — immigrant workers try to start over after layoffs,” SF Gate online, 1/18/05, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/01/18/MNG49AS6ND1.DTL.

[31] Hua, Vanessa, “Lifting of import quotas a blow to garment factories: Bay Area apparel industry tattered by overseas competition — immigrant workers try to start over after layoffs,” SF Gate online, 1/18/05, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/01/18/MNG49AS6ND1.DTL.

[32] Lazarus, David,  “Law closing in on factory: S.F. garment maker accused of not paying workers for 3 months,” San Francisco Chronicle, 8/17/01, http://www.sweatshopwatch.org/swatch/headlines/2001/wins_aug2001.html.

[33] Given, Olivia, “Frequently Asked Questions About Sweatshops and Women Workers,” Feminist Against Sweatshops, 1997,  http://www.feminist.org/other/sweatshops/sweatfaq.html.

[34] Given, Olivia, “Frequently Asked Questions About Sweatshops and Women Workers,” Feminist Against Sweatshops, 1997,  http://www.feminist.org/other/sweatshops/sweatfaq.html.

[35] Global Exchange fact sheet by Valerie

[36] Oakland Institute.org, http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/Sweat%20Free%20Page.html.

[37] Office of Contract Administration for the city and county of San Francisco, 2/21/05, http://www.sfgov.org/site/oca_page.asp?id=26534.

[38] Infoshop.org, 2/21/05, http://www.infoshop.org/news_archive/sweatshops.html.

[39] Co-op America, 2/20/05, http://www.sweatshops.org/faqs.html.

[40] Clean Clothes Connection, 2/24/05, http://www.cleanclothesconnection.org/sweatshopqa.htm.

[41] Clean Clothes Connection, 2/24/05, http://www.cleanclothesconnection.org/sweatshopqa.htm.

[42] “The Consumer and Sweatshops November 1999,” Marymount University, 2/21/05, http://www.marymount.edu/news/garmentstudy/overview.html.

[43] Co-op America, 2/20/05, http://www.sweatshops.org/faqs.html.

[44] Co-op America, 2/20/05, http://www.sweatshops.org/faqs.html.

[45] Co-op America, 2/20/05, http://www.sweatshops.org/faqs.html.

Research compiled while serving as Research Coordinator for Oakland Institute, working closely with former Senator Tom Hayden and Eric Zeitlin, 2005.

(C) 2009 By Shannon Laliberte Parks. All Rights Reserved. Please Obtain Permission to Copy.

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