For other uses, see Sweatshop (disambiguation).

Sweatshop (or sweat factory) is a pejorative term for a workplace that has poor, socially unacceptable working conditions. The work may be difficult, dangerous, or underpaid. Workers in sweatshops may work long hours with low pay, regardless of laws mandating overtime pay or a minimum wage; child labor laws may also be violated. According to Fair Labor Association, at least 18 countries are operating Sweatshops, including Bangladesh, Romania, Costa Rica, El Salvador, China, the Dominican Republic, India, Vietnam, Honduras, Indonesia, Turkey, Brazil, Haiti, Taiwan, the Ivory Coast, Nicaragua, Mexico, the United States and its territories.


A sweatshop is a factory or workshop, especially in the clothing industry, where manual workers are employed at very low wages for long hours and under poor conditions.

A sweatshop c.1890

Many workplaces through history have been crowded, low-paying and without job security; but the concept of a sweatshop originated between 1830 and 1850 as a specific type of workshop in which a certain type of middleman, the sweater, directed others in garment making (the process of producing clothing) under arduous conditions. The terms sweater for the middleman and sweat system for the process of subcontracting piecework were used in early critiques like Charles Kingsley's Cheap Clothes and Nasty, written in 1850, which described conditions in London, England. The workplaces created for the sweating system, a system of subcontracting in the tailoring trade were called sweatshops and might contain only a few workers or as many as 100 and more.

Between 1850 and 1900, sweatshops attracted the rural poor to rapidly growing cities, and attracted immigrants to places such as London and New York City's garment district, located near the tenements of New York's Lower East Side. These sweatshops incurred criticism: labour leaders cited them as crowded, poorly ventilated, and prone to fires and rat infestations: in many cases, there were many workers crowded into small tenement rooms.

In the 1890s, a group calling itself the National Anti-Sweating League was formed in Melbourne and campaigned successfully for a minimum wage via trade boards.[1] A group with the same name campaigned from 1906 in the UK, resulting in the Trade Boards Act 1909.[2]

In 1910, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union was founded to try to improve the condition of these workers.[3]

Criticism of garment sweatshops became a major force behind workplace safety regulation and labor laws. As some journalists strove to change working conditions, the term sweatshop came to refer to a broader set of workplaces whose conditions were considered inferior. In the United States, investigative journalists, known as Muckrakers, wrote exposés of business practices, and progressive politicians campaigned for new laws. Notable exposés of sweatshop conditions include Jacob Riis' photo documentary How the Other Half Lives and Upton Sinclair's book, The Jungle about the meat packing industry.

In 1911, negative public perceptions of sweatshops were galvanized by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City. The pivotal role of this time and place is chronicled at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, part of the Lower East Side Tenement National Historic Site. While trade unions, minimum wage laws, fire safety codes, and labour laws have made sweatshops (in the original sense) rarer in the developed world, they did not eliminate them, and the term is increasingly associated with factories in the developing world.

In a report issued in 1994, the United States Government Accountability Office found that there were still thousands of sweatshops in the United States, using a definition of a sweatshop as any "employer that violates more than one federal or state labor law governing minimum wage and overtime, child labor, industrial homework, occupational safety and health, workers' compensation, or industry registration".[4] This recent definition eliminates any historical distinction about the role of a middleman or the items produced, and focuses on the legal standards of developed country workplaces. An area of controversy between supporters of outsourcing production to the Third World and the anti-sweatshop movement is whether such standards can or should be applied to the workplaces of the developing world.

Sweatshops are also sometimes implicated in human trafficking when workers have been tricked into starting work without informed consent, or when workers are kept at work through debt bondage or mental duress, all of which are more likely if the workforce is drawn from children or the uneducated rural poor. Because they often exist in places without effective workplace safety or environmental laws, sweatshops sometimes injure their workers or the environment at greater rates than would be acceptable in developed countries. Sometimes penal labor facilities (employing prisoners) are grouped under the sweatshop label. Sweatshops conditions resemble prison labor in many cases, especially from a common found Western perspective. Recently in 2014 "Apple was caught failing to protect its workers" in one of its Pegatron factories. Overwhelmed workers were caught falling asleep during their 12-hour shift and an undercover reporter had to work 18 days in a row.[5] Sweatshops in question carry characteristics such as compulsory pregnancy tests for female laborers and terrorization from supervisors into submission.[6] Workers then go into a state of forced labor, if even one day of work is not accounted for, most are immediately fired.[7] These working conditions have been the source of suicidal unrest within factories in the past. Chinese sweatshops known to have increased numbers of suicidal employees have suicide nets covering the whole site, in place to stop over-worked and stressed employees leaping to their deaths.[8]

Sweatshops have proved a difficult issue to resolve because their roots lie in the conceptual foundations of the world economy. Developing countries like India, China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Honduras encourage the outsourcing of work from the developed world to provide work for their people and profits for their employers. Outsourced work can, at times, bring some form of wealth to impoverished countries. Regardless of Western labor concerns, people living in poor conditions prefer low wages to none at all.[9] The shift of production to developing countries is part of globalization, but may also be described as neoliberal globalization to emphasize the role that free market economics plays in outsourcing.

Anti-sweatshop movement

Some of the earliest sweatshop critics were found in the 19th century abolitionist movement that had originally coalesced in opposition to chattel slavery, and many abolitionists saw similarities between slavery and sweatshop work. As slavery was successively outlawed in industrial countries between 1794 (in France) and 1865 (in the United States), some abolitionists sought to broaden the anti-slavery consensus to include other forms of harsh labor, including sweatshops. As it happened, the first significant law to address sweatshops (the Factory Act of 1833) was passed in the United Kingdom at the same time that the slave trade (1807) and ownership of slaves (1833) were made illegal.

Ultimately, the abolitionist movement split apart. Some advocates focused on working conditions and found common cause with trade unions and Marxists and socialist political groups, or progressive movement and the muckrakers. Others focused on the continued slave trade and involuntary servitude in the colonial world. For those groups that remained focused on slavery, sweatshops became one of the primary objects of controversy. Workplaces across multiple sectors of the economy were categorized as sweatshops. However, there were fundamental philosophical disagreements about what constituted slavery. Unable to agree on the status of sweatshops, the abolitionists working with the League of Nations and the United Nations ultimately backed away from efforts to define slavery, and focused instead on a common precursor of slavery – human trafficking.[10]

Those focused on working conditions included Friedrich Engels, whose book The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 would inspire the Marxist movement named for his collaborator, Karl Marx. In the United Kingdom the Factory Act was revised six further times between 1844 and 1878 to help improve the condition of workers by limiting work hours and the use of child labor. The formation of the International Labour Organization in 1919 under the League of Nations and then the United Nations sought to address the plight of workers the world over. Concern over working conditions as described by muckraker journalists during the Progressive Era in the United States saw the passage of new workers rights laws and ultimately resulted in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, passed during the New Deal.[11]

On February 4, 1997 Mayor Ed Boyle of North Olmsted, in the U.S. state of Ohio, introduced the first piece of legislation prohibiting the government of purchasing, renting, or taking on consignment any and all goods made under sweatshop conditions and including in the definition those goods made by political prisoners and incarcerated criminals. Similar legislation was subsequently passed in other American cities such as Detroit, New York, and San Francisco. Later Mayor Boyle introduced the legislation to the Mayors and Managers Association where it was immediately endorsed, and he was invited by President Bill Clinton to address a panel studying the subject in Washington, DC.

Clothing and footwear factories overseas have progressively improved working conditions because the high demand of anti-sweatshop movement, labour right advocates.[12] Sweatshops over seas have been receiving enormous amounts of pressure. Around the working conditions from college students, and other opponents of sweatshops which has led to some of the powerful companies like Nike and the Gap who have agreed to cut back on child labour,[12] restrict the use of dangerous and poisonous chemicals, and drop the average rate of employees working 80 hour weeks, according to groups that monitor such factories. Labour advocates say, this could be a major turning point after 4 decades of workers in Asia and Latin American factories being under paid, under appreciated and working in an unsafe environment.

Modern anti-globalization movement

More recently, the anti-globalization movement has arisen in opposition to corporate globalization, the process by which multinational corporations move their operations overseas to lower costs and increase profits. The anti-sweatshop movement has much in common with the anti-globalization movement. Both consider sweatshops harmful, and both have accused many companies (such as the Walt Disney Company, The Gap, and Nike) of using sweatshops. Some in these movements charge that neoliberal globalization is similar to the sweating system, arguing that there tends to be a "race to the bottom" as multinationals leap from one low-wage country to another searching for lower production costs, in the same way that sweaters would have steered production to the lowest cost sub-contractor.[13]

Various groups support or embody the anti-sweatshop movement today. The National Labor Committee brought sweatshops into the mainstream media in the 1990s when it exposed the use of sweatshop and child labor to sew clothing for Kathie Lee Gifford's Wal-Mart label. United Students Against Sweatshops is active on college campuses. The International Labor Rights Fund filed a lawsuit[14] on behalf of workers in China, Nicaragua, Swaziland, Indonesia, and Bangladesh against Wal-Mart charging the company with knowingly developing purchasing policies particularly relating to price and delivery time that are impossible to meet while following the Wal-Mart code of conduct. Labor unions, such as the AFL-CIO, have helped support the anti-sweatshop movement out of concern both for the welfare of workers in the developing world and those in the United States.[15]

Social critics complain that sweatshop workers often do not earn enough money to buy the products that they make, even though such items are often commonplace goods such as T-shirts, shoes, and toys. In 2003, Honduran garment factory workers were paid US$0.24 for each $50 Sean John sweatshirt, $0.15 for each long-sleeved T-shirt, and only five cents for each short-sleeved shirt – less than one-half of one percent of the retail price.[16] Even comparing international costs of living, the $0.15 that a Honduran worker earned for the long-sleeved T-shirt was equal in purchasing power to $0.50 in the United States.[17] In countries where labor costs are low, bras that cost US$5–7 apiece retail for US$50 or more in American stores. As of 2006, female garment workers in Sri Lanka earned about US$2.20 per day.[18]

Anti-globalization proponents cite high savings, increased capital investment in developing nations, diversification of their exports and their status as trade ports as the reason for their economic success rather than sweatshops[19][20][21] and cite the numerous cases in the East Asian "Tiger Economies" where sweatshops have reduced living standards and wages.[22] They believe that better-paying jobs, increased capital investment and domestic ownership of resources will improve the economies of sub-Saharan Africa rather than sweatshops. They point to good labor standards developing strong manufacturing export sectors in wealthier sub-Saharan countries such as Mauritius[23] and believe measures like these will improve economic conditions in developing nations.[24]

Anti-globalization organizations argue that the minor gains made by employees of some of these institutions are outweighed by the negative costs such as lowered wages to increase profit margins and that the institutions pay less than the daily expenses of their workers.[25][26][27] They also point to the fact that sometimes local jobs offered higher wages before trade liberalization provided tax incentives to allow sweatshops to replace former local unionized jobs.[28] They further contend that sweatshop jobs are not necessarily inevitable.[29][30] Eric Toussaint claims that quality of life in developing countries was actually higher between 1945 and 1980 before the international debt crisis of 1982 harmed economies in developing countries causing them to turn to IMF and World Bank-organized "structural adjustments"[31] and that unionized jobs pay more than sweatshop ones overall – "several studies of workers producing for US firms in Mexico are instructive: workers at the Aluminum Company of America's Ciudad Acuna plant earn between $21.44 and $24.60 per week, but a weekly basket of basic food items costs $26.87. Mexican GM workers earn enough to buy a pound of apples in 30 minutes of work, while GM workers in the US earn as much in 5 minutes."[32] People critical of sweatshops believe that "free trade agreements" do not truly promote free trade at all but instead seek to protect multinational corporations from competition by local industries (which are sometimes unionized).[33] They believe free trade should only involve reducing tariffs and barriers to entry and that multinational businesses should operate within the laws in the countries they want to do business in rather than seeking immunity from obeying local environmental and labor laws. They believe these conditions are what give rise to sweatshops rather than natural industrialization or economic progression.

In some countries, such as China, it is not uncommon for these institutions to withhold workers' pay.[34]

According to labor organizations in Hong Kong, up to $365 million is withheld by managers who restrict pay in exchange for some service, or don't pay at all.[35]

Furthermore, anti-globalization proponents argue that those in the West who defend sweatshops show double standards by complaining about sweatshop labor conditions in countries considered enemies or hostile by Western governments, while still gladly consuming their exports but complaining about the quality.[22] They contend that multinational jobs should be expected to operate according to international labor and environmental laws and minimum wage standards like businesses in the West do.[36]

Labor historian Erik Loomis claims that the conditions faced by workers in the United States in the Gilded Age have been replicated in developing countries where Western corporations utilize sweatshop labor. In particular, he compares the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 New York to the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013 Bangladesh. He argues that the former galvanized the population to political activism that eventually pushed through reforms not only pertaining to workplace safety, but also the minimum wage, the eight-hour day, workers' compensation, Social Security the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. American corporations responded by shifting production to developing nations where such protections did not exist. Loomis elaborates:

So in 2013, when over 1100 workers die at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, it is the same industry as the Triangle Fire, with the same subcontracted system of production that allows apparel companies to avoid responsibility for work as the Triangle Fire, and with the same workforce of young and poor women, the same type of cruel bosses, and the same terrible workplace safety standards as the Triangle Fire. The difference is that most of us can't even find Bangladesh on a map, not to mention know enough about it to express the type of outrage our ancestors did after Triangle. This separation of production from consumption is an intentional move by corporations precisely to avoid being held responsible by consumers for their actions. And it is very effective.[37]

Criticisms of anti-globalization

While East Asia has embraced large numbers of sweatshops, sub-Saharan Africa has not. This graph shows that the percentage of the population living on less than $1 per day (adjusted for inflation) has fallen substantially in East Asia, while remaining relatively unchanged in sub-Saharan Africa. The graph shows the 1981–2001 period. Data source: "How Have the World's Poorest Fared Since the Early 1980s?" by Shaohua Chen and Martin Ravallion.[38] Table 3, p. 28.

In 1997, economist Jeffrey Sachs said, "My concern is not that there are too many sweatshops, but that there are too few."[39] Sachs and other proponents of free trade and the global movement of capital cite the economic theory of comparative advantage, which states that international trade will, in the long run, make all parties better off. The theory holds that developing countries improve their condition by doing something that they do "better" than industrialized nations (in this case, they charge less but do the same work). Developed countries will also be better off because their workers can shift to jobs that they do better. These are jobs that some economists say usually entail a level of education and training that is exceptionally difficult to obtain in the developing world. Thus, economists like Sachs say, developing countries get factories and jobs that they would not otherwise. Some would say with this situation occurs when developing countries try to increase wages because sweatshops tend to just get moved on to a new state that is more welcoming. This leads to a situation where states often don't try to increase wages for sweatshop workers for fear of losing investment and boosted GDP. However, this only means average wages around the world will increase at a steady rate. A nation only gets left behind if it demands wages higher than the current market price for that labor.

When asked about the working condition in sweatshops, proponents say that although wages and working conditions may appear inferior by the standards of developed nations, they are actually improvements over what the people in developing countries had before. It is said that if jobs in such factories did not improve their workers' standard of living, those workers would not have taken the jobs when they appeared. It is also often pointed out that, unlike in the industrialized world, the sweatshops are not replacing high-paying jobs. Rather, sweatshops offer an improvement over subsistence farming and other back-breaking tasks, or even prostitution, trash picking, or starvation by unemployment.[39][40]

Sweatshops, not only offer better jobs then what are available in the local communities but the wages that the workers receive lead to a better standard of living for the workers and their families. Raveena Aulkah a journalist for Mail Online News went undercover as a sweatshop worker and documented her experience. One of her main takeaways was that even though working conditions were not optimal the families could now afford "goats, schooling, and clothing for their families".[41]

The absence of the work opportunities provided by sweatshops can quickly lead to malnourishment or starvation. After the Child Labor Deterrence Act was introduced in the US, an estimated 50,000 children were dismissed from their garment industry jobs in Asia, leaving many to resort to jobs such as "stone-crushing, street hustling, and prostitution." UNICEF's 1997 State of the World's Children study found these alternative jobs "more hazardous and exploitative than garment production."[42] As Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman states in a 1997 article for Slate, "as manufacturing grows in poor countries, it creates a ripple effect that benefits ordinary people: 'The pressure on the land becomes less intense, so rural wages rise; the pool of unemployed urban dwellers always anxious for work shrinks, so factories start to compete with each other for workers, and urban wages also begin to rise.' In time average wages creep up to a level comparable to minimum-wage jobs in the United States."[43]

Writer Johan Norberg, a proponent of market economics, points out an irony:[44]

[Sweatshop critics] say that we shouldn't buy from countries like Vietnam because of its labor standards, they've got it all wrong. They're saying: "Look, you are too poor to trade with us. And that means that we won't trade with you. We won't buy your goods until you're as rich as we are." That's totally backwards. These countries won't get rich without being able to export goods.

Heavy-handed responses to reports of child labor and worker rights abuses such as widespread boycotts can be counterproductive if the net effect is simply to eliminate contracts with suppliers rather than to reform their employment practices. A 2005 article in the Christian Science Monitor states, "For example, in Honduras, the site of the infamous Kathy Lee Gifford sweatshop scandal, the average apparel worker earns $13.10 per day, yet 44 percent of the country's population lives on less than $2 per day... In Cambodia, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Honduras, the average wage paid by a firm accused of being a sweatshop is more than double the average income in that country's economy."[45] On three documented occasions during the 1990s, anti-sweatshop activists in rich countries have apparently caused increases in child prostitution in poor countries. In Bangladesh, the closure of several sweatshops run by a German company put Bangladeshi children out of work, and some ended up working as prostitutes, turning to crime, or starving to death. In Pakistan, several sweatshops closed, including ones run by Nike, Reebok, and other corporations—which caused some of those Pakistani children to turn to prostitution. In Nepal, a carpet manufacturing company closed several sweatshops, resulting in thousands of Nepalese girls turning to prostitution.[46]

A 1996 study of corporate codes of conduct in the apparel industry by the U.S. Department of Labor has concluded that corporate codes of conduct that monitor labor norms in the apparel industry, rather than boycott or eliminate contracts upon the discovery of violations of internationally recognized labor norms, are a more effective way to eliminate child labor and the exploitation of children, provided they provide for effective monitoring that includes the participation of workers and their knowledge of the standards to which their employers are subject.[47]

Arguably, the United States underwent a similar process during its own industrialization where child labor and the suppression of worker organizations were prevalent. According to an article in Gale Opposing Viewpoints in Context, sweatshops became prevalent in the United States during the Industrial Revolution. Although the working conditions and wages in these factories were very poor, as new jobs in factories began to appear, people left the hard life of farming to work in these factories, and the agricultural nature of the economy shifted into a manufacturing one because of this industrialization. However, during this new industrialized economy, the labor movement drove the rise in the average level of income as factory workers began to demand better wages and working conditions. Through much struggle, sufficient wealth was created and a large middle class began to emerge. Workers and advocates were able to achieve basic rights for workers, which included the right to form unions, and negotiate terms such as wages, overtime pay, health insurance, and retirement pensions; and eventually they were also able to attain legal protections such as minimum wage standards, and discrimination and sexual abuse protections. Furthermore, Congress set forth to ensure a minimum set of safety standards were followed in workplaces by passing the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in 1970. These developments were able to improve working environments for Americans but it was through sweatshops that the economy grew and people were able to accumulate wealth and move out of poverty.

In contrast, similar efforts in developing nations have not produced the same results, because of corruption and lack of democracy in communist nations such as China and Vietnam, worker intimidation and murder in Latin America—and corruption throughout the developing world. These barriers prevent creation of similar legal protections for workers in these countries, as numerous studies by the International Labor Organization show.[48] Nonetheless, a boycott approach to protesting these conditions is likely to hurt workers willing to accept employment even under poor working conditions, as a loss of employment would result in a comparatively worse level of poverty. According to a November 2001 BBC article, in the previous two months, 100,000 sweatshop workers in Bangladesh had been put off work. The workers petitioned their government to lobby the U.S. government to repeal its trade barriers on their behalf to retain their jobs.[49]

Defenders of sweatshops cite Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan as recent examples of countries that benefited from having sweatshops.[50][51]

It should be noted, however, that in these countries, legislative and regulatory frameworks to protect and promote labor rights and the rights of workers against unsafe and exploitative working conditions exist, and studies have shown no systematic relationship between labor rights, such as collective bargaining and the freedom of association, and national economic growth.[52]

Anti-sweatshop organizations

Anti-sweatshop organizations in Asia


Main article: Sweatshop-free

Sweatshop-free is a term the fashion brand American Apparel created to mean coercion-free, fair-compensation for garment workers who make their products.[53][54] American Apparel claims its employees earn on average double the federal minimum wage.[53] They receive a number of employee benefits, from health insurance to subsidized transportation and meals, and have access to an onsite medical clinic.[53] It has been heavily featured in the company's advertisements for nearly a decade and become a common term in the garment industry.[55][56][57][58][59]

Sweatshop-free Brands

See also



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Further reading

External links

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