What is a Sweatshop?
The U.S. General Accounting Office defines a sweatshop as an employer that violates more than one federal or state labor law governing minimum wage and overtime, child labor, industrial homework, occupational safety and health, worker’s compensation or industry regulation. Sweatshops exist both internationally and domestically and the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that over 50% of sewing shops in the US are sweatshops as defined by the above definition. Buying “Made in the USA” clothing often does not mean “sweatshop free”.
Workers in sweatshops are usually young women and immigrant workers that are desperately poor and work long, long hours, sometimes up to 20 hours a day and their wages still do not total a workable wage to feed and clothe their families. The workers are often denied bathroom breaks and forced to undergo pregnancy tests and take birth control so the companies do not have to pay maternity leave costs. The workers often suffer verbal and physical abuse and struggle to complete high quotas each day.
Why Are Sweatshops A Global Issue?
Sweatshops employ millions of people, mostly young women, in deplorable conditions around the world, while their employers profit in the billions. These modern day slaves are barely able to survive under poor conditions and their wages are miniscule.
The United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO) has identified the following conventions as fundamental to the rights of human beings at work, irrespective of countries’ levels of development:
- Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining
- The elimination of forced and compulsory labor
- The abolition of child labor
- The elimination of discrimination in the workplace
Across the globe, these guidelines are violated, with no one i held accountable. Each garment produced under these violations that we purchase supports companies that ignore the international protocol for fair and safe industry conditions.
Are There Sweatshops in the US?
In 2000, more than half of the 22,000 sewing shops in the U.S. violated minimum wage and overtime laws and 75% violated health and safety laws. A study in 2000 found that 98% of Los Angeles garment factories violated workplace health and safety standards by operating under conditions such as blocked fire exits, unsanitary bathrooms and poor ventilation. The workers in Los Angeles are almost entirely immigrants earning about 1/3 of a living wage.
The Department of Labor and Immigration is overworked and underfunded and has yet to seriously address the desperate situation of sweatshops within our boarders.
For a closer look at the lives of female garment workers on Sapian Island, a commonwealth of the United States, read “Paradise Lost: Greed, Sex Slavery, Forced Abortions and Right-Wing Moralists” in Ms. Magazine.
The women employed in these sweatshops are not protected by the domestic and international protections provided in other industries, though they are a commonwealth of the United States.
Why Are Sweatshops a Feminist Issue?
85% of sweatshop workers are young women between the ages of 15-25. The employers at these sweatshops often force the women to take birth control and do routine pregnancy tests so they do not have to pay maternity leave. Women are often fired after becoming pregnant in complete violation of the law yet no one is held accountable.
Though often not intentionally, our purchases perpetuate the situation and our inaction allows for these conditions to exist in our country and abroad. Take action to fix sweatshops and allow women the dignity of a living wage in healthy, legal working conditions.
Goals of the Anti-Sweatshop Movement
- That workers be paid a LIVING wage
- That companies adopt real independent monitoring by local human rights organizations
- That stricter limits be placed on companies’ mandatory overtime policies
- That overtime be paid at a higher rate than regular hours
- That workers be allowed their freedom of association and freedom of speech
Statistics courtesy of SweatFree Communities