This is the first in our series on "Ethical Shopping, Ethical Clothes." In previous posts, we documented the role of the conventional garment manufacturing industry in the poisoning of our planet’s physical environment. Of equal importance is the often overlooked poisoning of social systems from global garment industry sweatshops. Sweatshops have a long and ignoble history. The beginning of the Industrial Revolution is largely credited with ushering in sweatshops, but the sad reality is that it is a small step from physical slavery to the economic slavery of sweatshops.
In the 1880’s, poor European immigrants desperate for work began filling the large cities in America. With the swelling of the population and the destruction of the garment industry in the South after the Civil War, there was a large demand for cheap garments to clothe the urban masses and the westward expansion. Garment sewing businesses began to spring up in the East Coast cities fueled by the escalating demand for cheap clothing and the swelling supply of recent immigrants desperate for jobs and willing to work long hours under cruel conditions. Fierce competition for business among shop owners kept pay low and working conditions dismal in overcrowded, poorly lit, and inadequately ventilated tenements and factory buildings. Calling these low-cost, labor-intensive garment manufacturing operations “sweatshops” is a polite way to describe the conditions. It was a bare subsistence life that ensnared many urban poor but especially children and women. Many lives of sweatshop laborers were cut short by malnutrition, disease and exhaustion. The oppressive atrocities forced upon many in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s were child labor, long hours, low wages, unpaid work, firings with no notice and no severance pay while working in conditions that were frigidly cold in the winter, sickly hot and humid in the summer, and always filthy, smelly, loud, and unsafe.
The public’s social and political outrage against garment sweatshops began on March 25, 1911 when a fire erupted in the 10-story Asch Building in NYC. The 8th and 9th floors housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Co., a garment sweatshop which made a popular style of women's clothing. Five hundred sweatshop workers, mostly young women between the ages of 15 and 25 who immigrated from Europe and worked more than 50 hours per week for $6, were trapped in the fiery holocaust. 146 sweatshop workers died locked in the burning building or by jumping to their death. The nation’s social consciousness was shocked as details of the fire and the unsafe and brutal working conditions in sweatshops across the country were forced into public awareness. This was the moment that social and political activists started working to eliminate sweatshop conditions in all working environments, not just the garment industry.
Many feel that the culmination of this movement was the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. As part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Fair Labor Standards Act established a minimum wage for industrial workers that applied throughout the United States, the principle of the 40-hour week with time and a half for overtime, and a minimum working age for most occupations. It also marks the arrival of government regulations in private business labor practices.
End of story? A nasty social ill cured? Well … no. During the 1950s and ‘60s, the term “sweatshops” came to simply mean a lousy work environment. A growing economy, improved state and federal labor regulations and enforcement, reduced immigration rates of poor and uneducated immigrants, and increased sensitivity to labor issues removed many of the factors that contribute to the creation of sweatshops. In the early 1970’s with the end of the Vietnam War, masses of poor immigrants – especially from Asia – began to flood into the U.S. Rising domestic and international demand for U.S. apparel and a cheap immigrant labor force once again fueled the impetus for sweatshops.
Although sweatshops had never been eradicated in the U.S., the myth that they were a social ill from the past was exploded on August 2, 1995, when police raided a seven-apartment complex fenced with chain link and razor wire in El Monte, California. Police freed 72 illegal Thai immigrants who were being held in captivity and forced to work in an illegal garment sweatshop. The seven operators of the clandestine garment sweatshop were arrested and later convicted on charges of conspiracy, indentured servitude and harboring illegal immigrants. They admitted running the garment sweatshop from 1989 to 1995 with a captive work force that they worked up to 20 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 70¢ an hour.
As civilization moved into the 21st century, many hoped that the garment industry had evolved past enslaving our fellow workers in sweatshop conditions. We were sadly mistaken. With the rush to globalization, the rise of labor costs in the U.S., and the subsequent collapse of the garment manufacturing industry in the U.S., we have simply outsourced sweatshops to developing countries were wages are low and the supply of poor, uneducated laborers – many of whom are children – is plentiful.
The mushrooming spread of garment sweatshops in developing countries has been emboldened by diverse national and international factors: international trade agreements such as NAFTA, the 9/11 tragedy and the subsequent hardening of immigration into the U.S., depressed international cotton prices largely due to cushy U.S. government subsidies to large American corporate cotton farms, and a mild economic recession across the developed countries in the early 2000’s. The rise of sweatshops in developing countries has also been fueled by the global thirst for cheap apparel as consumers in Western countries have tightened their credit cards while looking for discount prices. Also, large U.S. retail chains cast aside ethics in their shortsighted frenzy to improve their profitability by squeezing manufacturing costs.
In recent years, a number of large American clothing chains have been accused of purchasing directly and indirectly from sweatshop garment manufacturers internationally. Nike, B.V.F. Apparel Manufacturing in Haiti that produces clothing for Disney stores, Adidas, New Balance, Wal-Mart, Kathie Lee, Reebok, Sears, J.C. Penney, The Limited, Kmart, Tommy Hilfiger and the Gap (which includes Old Navy and Banana Republic) have been implicated in supporting sweatshop conditions in developing countries around the world. The fact is that the number of garments purchased by American consumers has increased 73% between 1996 and 2001, while apparel prices have fallen 10% over the past decade. “Always Low Prices” comes largely at the expense of poor, uneducated garment workers who have been trapped in a system of servitude.
The conventional garment industry is one of the most globalized industries and is characterized by excessive working hours, low wages, sexual harassment, discrimination, hazardous conditions, and violations of freedom of association. The most vulnerable – the poor, uneducated women and children – are the most likely to become caught in the conventional garment manufacturing web.
What can you do? Plenty! There are two easy actions that we can all take. One: become informed. There are some excellent organizations that have proven effective in exposing the gray world of global sweatshops and the companies that support them.
- SweatShopWatch.org – “Sweatshop Watch serves low-wage workers nationally and globally, with a focus on eliminating sweatshop exploitation in California's garment industry. We believe that workers should earn a living wage in a safe, decent work environment, and that those responsible for the exploitation of sweatshop workers must be held accountable.”
- UNITEHERE.org – Their mission is to organize and unionize garment and textile workers and hotel service workers.
- CorpWatch.org – A watch dog organization to monitor the ethical labor behavior of corporations worldwide.
- GlobalExchange.org – “A membership-based international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world. Since our founding in 1988, we have successfully increased public awareness of root causes of injustice while building international partnerships and mobilizing for change.”
- United Students Against Sweatshops – “An international student movement fighting for sweatshop-free labor conditions and workers' rights. We believe that university standards should be brought in line with those of its students who demand that their school's logo is emblazoned on clothing made in decent working conditions. We have fought for these beliefs by demanding that our universities adopt ethically and legally strong codes of conduct, full public disclosure of company information and truly independent verification systems to ensure that sweatshop conditions are not happening. Ultimately, we are using our power as students to affect the larger industry that thrives in secrecy, exploitation, and the power relations of a flawed system.”
- Coop America’s Sweatshop Program – Committed to forming economic action to end sweatshops and forced child labor. Their Guide to Ending Sweatshops is an excellent resource.
In our next posting, we will discuss ethical shopping, the second action that we can all take to reduce the cruel demand for sweatshops.
Become informed. Shop ethically. Enjoy.
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