Sweatshops in the United States
Americans love to shop. With malls everywhere you go, shopping just might be America s favorite past time! When you are out shopping though, do you ever stop to think where all of those clothes and shoes come from? When I was younger, well, actually until recently, I always thought they were all made by machines. Shirt machines, pants machines you get the picture. I have learned, however, that for the most part, clothes are still made on sewing machines, by people, and often under circumstances that we can only imagine.
Sweatshops have always been a problem in the Unites States, especially during the past century. Unfair working conditions and pay prompted the formation of the Garment Worker Union. This was the first union of its kind, and helped organize campaigns demanding for shorter work weeks, fair pay, and paid holidays for the garment workers.
In March of 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in Manhattan. 146 garment workers perished in the fire. Days later, 80,000 people participated in a funeral procession up 5th Avenue. This tragedy, and its enormous public response, prompted the federal government to take action and establish control over the industry.
In 1938, major legislation passed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Fair Labor Standards Act, (FLSA) guaranteed a $.25 an hour minimum wage, prohibited child labor, and required that employers keep adequate time and payroll records.
In 1958 the largest nationwide strike in history, with 100,000 union members walking out of factories occurred. They won more holidays and higher wages. Conditions were at an all time high for the workers. This soon came to pass, however, as many manufacturers and retailers begin subcontracting to manufacturers in other countries where, according to the National Labor Committee, workers would work for as little as $.09 an hour. Due to the increased foreign competition, sweatshops again begin flourishing in the United States.
Today, sweatshops in the United States garment industry are a tremendous problem. The Department of Labor estimates that of the 22,000 clothing contractors in the United States, approximately half do not even pay the prevailing minimum wage. Many use illegal immigrants to work; some even use child labor. A 1996 survey of just California garment firms found that 99% were in violation of wage, health, or safety regulations. Lina, a former employee of Seo Fashions in New York City, said of the conditions there, Everything is dirty, the trash isn t picked up, and the bathrooms aren t fit for pigs to use.
So how are manufacturers getting away with this? In some cases, I ve learned, with brute force. On August 2, 1995, the Department of Labor raided a factory in El Monte, California. There they found 72 garment workers, mostly Thai and Mexican immigrants, being forced to work 17 hours a day at wages between $.60 and $1.60 and hour. They were literally held captive at the factory by barbwire and armed guards. Employees were threatened with rape and violence if they attempted escape. The El Monte sweatshop was finally discovered when an employee escaped through a ventilation shaft.
In many sweatshops, however, the workers are there voluntarily. Even the meager wages earned are more than the undocumented immigrants workers would earn in their home countries. As long as there is a supply of willing workers, sweatshops will flourish.
So what can be done? How can the sweatshop problem in the United States be resolved? Is there even a plausible solution? Through my research for this speech I have discovered that everyone seems to have a solution, yet putting the solutions into action is another thing altogether.
Of the many solutions to the problem, the main, and most obvious solution, is government regulation. The Department of Labor monitors the garment industry, but with 800 inspectors for 22,000 garment contractors, in addition to 6 million American workplaces, this is no easy task. The Department of Labor is forced to rely mainly on raising public awareness through the No Sweat Campaign. Part of this campaign is the Fashion Trendsetter list. The list contains companies that have pledged to fight against the use of sweatshops by ensuring that their shelves are stocked with only NO SWEAT clothing. A fantastic idea, but through my research I discovered some information that this list might not be as reliable as it appears to be.
Another major solution is through the retailers. Retailers have many options to help eliminate the sweatshop problem. They can hire independent companies to monitor their vendors. Many companies employ monitors of their own to regularly check on the contractors and subcontractors. But as Alan Howard, spokesperson for UNITE aptly puts it they know when they bid out a job at a certain price, there s only one way the garment can be made. That work is going to another sweatshop.
The final major solution is all up to us. As consumers, we have a direct say in what is purchased, and what is not. By vowing to buy clothing that is produced only in decent working conditions, we eliminate the problem. If it were only that easy unfortunately the clothing tags do not read THIS ARTICLE OF CLOTHING WAS PRODUCED IN A SWEATSHOP. An easy, but only partial solution, is to only buy clothing that says MADE IN USA. This would increase production in the United States, while decreasing the competition of foreign countries. Unfortunately, however, many companies have beaten that trick with a trick of their own. As reported in an article from People s Weekly World, Wal-Mart Little Leaguer garments bear labels that say they are made in the United States, yet they were actually made in Haiti. Who knows how many other companies do the same.
The Department of Labor s No Sweat Campaign recommends three ways to consumers to investigate whether clothing is No Sweat. Ask retailers questions about where and how garments are made, ask them whether they independently monitor garment manufacturers, and whether they support No Sweat clothing. It seems simple, but remember, the retailers work for us.
The sweatshop problem is not one that will probably go away anytime in the near future. As reported in Business Week, consumers want clothes made in decent factories offering decent pay- but they also want cheap goods. It s hard to give them both. The problem has been recognized, and if everyone, consumers, retailers, and the government alike, do their part, maybe the future of the United States garment industry will not be as bleak as its past, or its present.