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Women and Sweatshop Labor

"The Department of Labor indicates that 50% of garment factories in the U.S. violate two or more basic labor laws, establishing them as sweatshops. Sweatshops exist wherever there is an opportunity to exploit workers who lack the knowledge and resources to stand up for themselves. Typical sweatshop employees, ninety percent of whom are women, are young and uneducated. Many of them are recent or undocumented immigrants who are unaware of their legal rights. Young women throughout the world are subject to horrible working conditions and innumerable injustices because corporations, many of which are U.S.-owned, can get away with it."

(From Woman and Global Human Rights- http://www.webster.edu/~woolflm/sweatshops.html)

         What is a sweatshop?

* Extreme exploitation, including the absence of a living wage or long work hours,
* Poor working conditions, such as health and safety hazards,
* Arbitrary discipline, such as verbal or physical abuse, or
* Fear and intimidation when they speak out, organize, or attempt to form a union

Why Do Sweatshops Exist?

Historically, the word "sweatshop" originated in the Industrial Revolution to describe a subcontracting system in which the middlemen earned profits from the margin between the amount they received for a contract and the amount they paid to the workers. The margin was said to be "sweated" from the workers because they received minimal wages for excessive hours worked under unsanitary conditions
  • No Corporate Accountability -- Brand-Name Companies Ignore Sweatshop Conditions
    The garment industry is based on a subcontracting system where retailers - companies that sell clothing like Wal-Mart and Target - sit at the top of the subcontracting chain. They place orders with manufacturers - brand-name labels like Tommy Hilfiger and Levi-Strauss - who design clothing. The manufacturers then hire contractors, who sometimes hire subcontractors, to assemble the clothing. Contractors and subcontractors recruit, hire, and pay the garment workers who cut, sew, and package clothing. Garment workers lie at the bottom of the chain, yet are the base and strength of the industry. Fierce competition puts most contractors, or factories, in a "take it or leave it" position, where they must accept whatever low price is given to them by manufacturers or see the work placed in another factory. Contract prices are driven down so low that factories are unable to pay legal wages or comply with safety laws. The industry structure forces most contractors to "sweat" profits out of the workers, cut corners and operate unsafe workplaces. Within this system, retailers and manufacturers claim they do not directly employ garment workers and are not responsible for workers' wages and working conditions. But retailers and manufacturers exercise tremendous control over the garment production chain and have the power to ensure fair working conditions. In fact, a California law passed in 1999 (Assembly Bill 633) holds garment manufacturers and retailers responsible for workers' wages.

  • Free Trade Puts Profits Before Workers
    The garment industry is part of the global economy, which is ruled by a free trade system. In this system, a powerful country such as the U.S., negotiates trade agreements with poorer developing countries (also called the Global South). Free trade agreements promise more market access to all countries involved by lowering or eliminating trade barriers such as taxes or tariffs. In this way, goods and services are sold or traded between the countries. Unfortunately, these trade agreements include very weak social clauses - provisions that set labor, social, and environmental standards - which do not adequately address worker protections or environmental concerns.
    Also, most countries in the Global South have relied on loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank to fund their economic development. These loans come with conditions that require them to make drastic changes to their economy and social programs that impact their most vulnerable populations. These factors make it very attractive for a transnational corporation (TNC) to distribute their production across the globe, making their clothing in countries with the lowest labor costs and weakest regulations.

Conditions in Sweatshops

(From Woman and Global Human Rights- http://www.webster.edu/~woolflm/sweatshops.html)

"Sweatshops violate women's human rights throughout the world. Common abuses include low wages that fail to meet basic costs of living, substandard and unsafe working and living conditions, long hours of overtime for which employees are not compensated, and sexual harassment. In addition to these, women are often forced into indentured servitude. Lured by recruiters who promise wonderful opportunities in foreign lands, young women often pay thousands of dollars in recruitment and contract "fees", tying themselves to contractual obligations that can last for years. Because their wages are often only $.10 to $.20 per hour, the women may receive no wages for years as they attempt to pay off these debts. If the women try to return home without fulfilling their contractual obligations, they are often blacklisted, fined, or arrested. Many women are not paid even without such debt. Sweatshops often fail to pay their employees on time, if at all. The workers, who are often unaware of their rights, have no choice but to continue to work because sweatshop managers threaten and punish them for insubordination.
Many of these factories, as well as the women's living quarters, are crowded, filthy, and rat-infested. They are located behind barbed wire fences that are monitored by armed guards. Not only are the women not allowed to come and go freely, but they are forbidden to have visitors. Thus, they are not given the opportunity to air their grievances to anyone who may be in a position to help them. Additionally, the women are always under the threat of corporal punishment. The women are verbally abused, spat on, and beaten. They are not allowed to take breaks or go to the bathroom during their shifts, and are fined if they do so. In some Indonesian sweatshops, women were forced to take down their pants and reveal to factory doctors that they were menstruating in order to claim their legal right to menstrual-leave (Morey, 2000). Female sweatshop employees are forced to endure numerous instances of sexual harassment. Additionally, managers often make false promises for better jobs in return for sexual favors. In a Samoan apparel plant, the factory owner routinely entered the womens' barracks to watch them shower and dress (Greenhouse, 2001). A 20/20 investigation in Saipan sweatshops discovered that pregnant employees were forced to have abortions in order to keep their jobs (20/20 special investigation, 2000). These women are often faced with little if any choices. They are prohibited from unionizing, and face the loss of their job, physical abuse, or deportation if they try to better their situation.

Sweatshops are not restricted to factories. Agricultural workers all over the world are subject to poor working conditions, low wages, and unhealthy working environments. Women make up a large portion of field workers. They are exposed to toxic pesticides and strenuous working conditions that lead to a number of health problems (Co-op America, 2001). Like factory sweatshop workers, they are not given adequate healthcare, if any, and are prohibited from unionizing. Even in the U.S., agricultural workers are not guaranteed legal rights to minimum wage, workers compensation, and overtime pay (Co-op America, 2001)."

Sweatshops Around the World

(From Woman and Global Human Rights- http://www.webster.edu/~woolflm/sweatshops.html)
"Despite international and domestic human rights agreements, many countries fail to protect the rights of their workers, and often have a hand in their exploitation. For instance, the trafficking of Thai women to Japan as means of cheap labor often includes debt bondage, forced labor and many other abuses. The Japanese and Thai governments fail to address these issues despite international obligations to protect the human rights of these migrant women (Human Rights Watch, 2000). These women undergo slavery-like conditions, and are literally "bought" and "sold" to employers. Many are forced to work without wages until they have repaid inflated "debts" and "fees", which may take years. The women are also subject to physical abuse, excessively long working hours, and sexual harassment (Human Rights Watch, 2000). These are abuses that are prohibited under Japanese and Thai domestic legislation and international law. Unfortunately, corruption and lack of concern among government officials exacerbates the women's situation.

Central and South America operate a number of sweatshops which violate workers' rights, particularly those of immigrants. In June of 2000, in Buenos Aires, authorities discovered forty Bolivian girls working in slavery-like conditions in a clandestine textile factory. It was discovered that they were forced to work up to 19 hours a day, were poorly-fed, and often beaten (Valente, 2000). The sweatshop was owned by a Bolivian immigrant. In Tehuacan, Mexico, workers are payed so little that they are forced to send their children to work in garment factories rather than school (Global Exchange, 2001). Guatemalan coffee growers, working on Starbuck's plantations, are paid poverty prices for their toil.

China is among the countries in which labor rights are violated regularly. Independent unions are not permitted, and the only organization allowed to represent workers is run by the Chinese Communist Party. Although China is in the midst of economic "reforms", these serve only to help the Chinese economy and foreign investors, not workers who, on the average, make less than $1.00 a day (Mann, 2000). A number of organizations have endorsed the U.S. Business Principles for Human Rights in China that calls for living wages (that meet basic needs), the prohibition of corporal punishment, bonded labor, and harassment, occupational safety, and the freedom to organiza unions. Organizations that have signed on include Amnesty International USA, the Fair Trade Foundation, Global Exchange, and many more. In order to stop the exploitation of workers around the world, however, corporations with the power and resources to influence governments and suppliers must put human concerns above profits."

Further Information

Take Action SweatshopWatch Sweatshop Warriors

Women and Sweatshops- Woman and Global Human Rights In the name of fashion - Exploitation in the Garment Industry

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