AskDefine | Define sweatshop

Dictionary Definition

sweatshop n : factory where workers do piecework for poor pay and are prevented from forming unions; common in the clothing industry

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. a factory or other place of work where pay is low and conditions are poor or even illegal



Extensive Definition

A sweatshop is a working environment with very difficult or dangerous conditions, usually where the workers have few rights or ways to address their situation. This can include exposure to harmful materials, hazardous situations, extreme temperatures, or abuse from employers. Sweatshop workers are often forced to work long hours for little or no pay, regardless of any laws mandating overtime pay or a minimum wage. Child labour laws may also be violated. Sweatshops may be compared to the factories of the early industrial revolution in countries such as the UK and US, where regulations were few and far between.
Though often associated with third-world countries, sweatshops can exist in any country. Sweatshops have existed in several cultures, including Early American culture beginning in the 1850's. Sweatshops can produce many different goods, from clothing to furniture.
Meanwhile, defenders of sweatshops, such as Paul Krugman and Johan Norberg, claim that people choose to work in sweatshops because the sweatshops offer them substantially higher wages and better working conditions compared to their previous jobs of manual farm labour, and that sweatshops are an early step in the process of technological and economic development whereby a poor country turns itself into a rich country. In addition, sometimes when anti-sweatshop activists were successful in getting sweatshops to close, some of the employees who had been working in the sweatshops ended up starving to death, while others ended up turning to prostitution.


Prior to 1830, fine clothing had been custom-made, primarily by male members of the organized tailor's guild Between 1830 and 1850, as the Industrial Revolution gave way to the Second Industrial Revolution, sweatshop production of inexpensive clothing displaced members of the tailors' guild, and replaced them with lower-skilled workers performing piece work at lower wages and in inferior conditions. The trend away from tailors was accelerated by the advent of a practical, foot-powered sewing machine in 1846. Sweatshops were the end of the artisan system that had existed.
The terms sweater for the middleman and sweating system for the process of subcontracting piecework were used in early critiques like Charles Kingsley's Cheap Clothes and Nasty, written in 1850. The workplaces created for the sweating system were called sweatshops, and variously comprised workplaces of only a few workers, or as many as 100 or more.
In the sweatshop of 1850, the role of the sweater as middleman and subcontractor (or sub-subcontractor) was considered key, because he served to keep workers isolated in small workshops. This isolation made workers unsure of their supply of work, and unable to organize against their true employer through collective bargaining. Instead, tailors or other clothing retailers would subcontract tasks to the sweater, who in turn might subcontract to another sweater, who would ultimately engage workers at a piece rate for each article of clothing or seam produced. Many critics asserted that the middleman made his profit by finding the most desperate workers, often women and children, who could be paid an absolute minimum. While workers who produced many pieces could earn more, less productive workers earned so little that critics termed their pay starvation wages. Employment was risky: injured or sick workers would be quickly replaced by others.
Between 1850 and 1900, sweatshops attracted the rural poor to rapidly-growing cities, and attracted immigrants to places like East London, England and New York City's garment district, located near the tenements of New York's Lower East Side. Wherever they were located, sweatshops also attracted critics and labor leaders who cited them as crowded, poorly ventilated, and prone to fires and rat infestations, since much of the work was done by many people crowded into small tenement rooms.
In 1900, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union was founded in an effort to improve the condition of these workers.
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 describe 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 labor laws have made sweatshops (in the original sense) rarer in the developed world, they did not eliminate them, and the term came to be 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" 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 in cases where 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 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 factories within their borders in order to provide employment for their people and profits to their employers. The shift of production to developing countries is part of the process known as globalization, but may also be described as neoliberal globalization to emphasize the role that free market economics plays in outsourcing.
Many brand name stores use sweatshops to this day (Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, American Eagle, etc.)

Positions on Sweatshops


As of 1997, Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs said, "My concern is not that there are too many sweatshops, but that there are too few." Sachs and other proponents of sweatshops cite the economic theory of comparative advantage, which states that international trade will, in the long run, make some 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 . The catch with this occurs when developing countries try to increase wages because sweatshops tend to just get moved on to a new state that is welcoming. This leads to a situation where states often will not try and get increased wages for sweatshop workers for fear of losing investment and boosted GDP.
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. This is the case since most under-developed countries have weak labor markets and little (if any) economic growth
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." Critics point out that sweatshop workers don't 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. However, defenders of such practices respond that critics of sweatshops are comparing wages paid in one country to prices set in another. 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. Although the wages paid to workers in Honduras would hardly be enough to live in the United States, it could very well be enough to live in Honduras, where prices are much lower. The $0.15 that a Honduran worker earned for the long-sleeved t-shirt was equal in purchasing power to $3.00 in the United States.
Writer Johan Norberg, a proponent of market economics, points out an irony:
Penn & Teller in their Wal-Mart episode interview Benajmin Powell, a Professor of Economics from San Jose State University, who argues out that sweatshop-type jobs in a developing country are often a significant improvement over other employment options (e.g. subsistence farming) and points out that the United States went through its own period of sweatshop labor during its development.
In an article about a Nike sweatshop in Vietnam, Johan Norberg wrote, "But when I talk to a young Vietnamese woman, Tsi-Chi, at the factory, it is not the wages she is most happy about. Sure, she makes five times more than she did, she earns more than her husband, and she can now afford to build an extension to her house. But the most important thing, she says, is that she doesn't have to work outdoors on a farm any more... Farming means 10 to 14 hours a day in the burning sun or the intensive rain... The most persistent demand Nike hears from the workers is for an expansion of the factories so that their relatives can be offered a job as well."
According to a November 2001 BBC article, in the previous two months, 100,000 sweatshop workers in Bangladesh had lost their sweatshop jobs. The sweatshop workers wanted their jobs back, and the Bangladeshi government was planning to lobby the U.S. government to repeal its trade barriers so the sweatshop workers could have their jobs back.
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."
On three documented occasions, there were increases in childhood prostitution. In the early 1990s, there was a closure of several sweatshops in Vietnam, and as a result, several thousand Vietnamese children who had been working in those sweatshops ended up working as prostitutes, turning to crime, or starving to death. In the mid-1990s, an Nepalese carpet manufacturing sweatshops to close, which resulted in thousands of Nepalese girls turning to prostitution. A anti-sweatshop protest in the 1990s also resulted in the closure of several Pakistani sweatshops, which caused those Pakistani children to turn to prostitution.
Defenders of sweatshops argue that every country starts out poor, and that the emergence of sweatshops in a country is a sign that the country has started to climb up the ladder of economic growth. These defenders of sweatshops cite Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan as recent examples of countries that benefited from having sweatshops.

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 about the same time that the slave trade (1807) and ownership of slaves (1833) were made illegal, and the anti-sweatshop movement drew from much the same reservoir of supporters and social thinkers. Similarly, once the United States had ended slavery during the American Civil War, the reconstruction period saw social reformers turn their attention to the plight of the urban workforce.
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 per se, 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.
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.
More recently, the anti-globalization movement has arisen in opposition to corporate globalization, a process by which multinational corporations move their operations overseas in order to lower their 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. The movement charges that neoliberal globalization is similar to the sweating system. Furthermore, they argue 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.
Anti-globalization activists and environmentalists also deplore transfer of heavy industrial manufacturing (such as chemical production) to the developing world. Although chemical factories have little in common with sweatshops in the original sense, detractors describe them as such and claim that there are negative environmental and health impacts (such as pollution and birth defects, respectively) on workers and the local community.
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 Kathie Lee Gifford's Wal-Mart label. United Students Against Sweatshops is active on college campuses. The International Labor Rights Fund filed a lawsuit 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 people in the developing world and that companies will move jobs from the United States elsewhere in order to capitalize on lower costs. For example, the American labor union UNITE HERE, which represents garment workers, has only approximately 3,000 garment workers remaining in its base, because larger garment making operations have already been transferred overseas. The only garment production facilities that remain in the US are small, disconnected workplaces.

Gender and sweatshops

Arguments that sweatshops provide skills and a boost to the economy are sometimes criticized for not taking into account the gendered nature of sweatshop employees. Because of the relatively higher value placed on male education, young women are often encouraged by their families to leave school and migrate to urban areas or Export Processing Zones (EPZ) to work in the garment industry. As outsiders in a new community, these young women lack the legal or family support they might receive in their own community and therefore, have to spend a larger amount of income on supporting themselves. Consequently, these young women who are no longer receiving an education often find it hard to earn enough money to send back to their family.
The division of labour in sweatshops is gendered because the vast majority of workers are young women. The problems faced by many workers are also gendered because gender-based notions of what is acceptable inform working conditions. Thus medical or maternity leave, employer / employee relations and the right to organize can all become gender biased. Consequently, the negative aspects of sweatshops have a disproportionate impact on women. Because of this, some argue that efforts to combat the poor working conditions in sweatshops should focus more on empowering women . Although company-led attempts to improve the working conditions in sweatshops such as the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) have had some successes, others criticize the ETI as ‘gender-blind’ . The modern anti-sweatshop movement combines notions of a living wage, trade unions, and feminism, which some argue makes these grassroots approaches more sustainable.

Current status of sweatshops

Some companies have acceded to public pressure to reduce or end their use of sweatshops. Such firms often publicize the fact that their products are not made with sweatshop labour; a number of organizations publish lists of companies that pay their workers a living wage. A 1998 report by the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development says a third of all clothes on sale in the UK's high street stores have been made in sweatshops in Asia.
In the United States, shoemaker New Balance is notable for changing its policies after intense pressure from campus anti-sweatshop groups. Clothing retailer Gap Inc., which includes Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic and Forth & Towne brands, has significantly changed its policies. Gap Inc. has developed a Code of Vendor Conduct which applies across all of its brands based on internationally accepted labor standards. Walmart and Nike are two of the largest corporate sponsors of sweatshop labor, but claim that they have safeguards in place to avoid using the worst sweatshops. Disney has also employed sweatshops to produce much of their clothing and toys, but their use has not been as well publicized as the cases of Nike, Walmart, or Kathie Lee Gifford. In the book "Disney; the Mouse Betrayed"; a chapter shows dealings with China, Vietnam, Haiti, but especially targets Disney's relationship with the military junta of Burma, of which it works hard to keep quiet given Burma's huge unpopularity in the international community. "Dozens of American clothes makers, such as Old Navy, Gap, Guess, Donna Karan, Victoria's Secret, have all signed pledges with the U.S. Department of Labor stating their conditions are closely monitored and that no child labor is being used. Disney has not."
The World Bank estimates that today, 1/5th of human beings live under the international poverty line. World poverty has become better due in a large part to the economic success of China and India, the two countries with the largest number of workers in sweatshops. Against this progress in the developing world, one should also note that economic inequality between the richest and poorest has never been so large.
"The income gap between the fifth of the world's people living in the richest countries and the fifth in the poorest was 74 to 1 in 1997, up from 60 to 1 in 1990 and 30 to 1 in 1960. Earlier the income gap between the top and bottom countries increased from 3 to 1 in 1820 to 7 to 1 in 1870 to 11 to 1 in 1913."

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sweatshop in German: Sweatshop
sweatshop in Spanish: Taller de trabajo esclavo
sweatshop in French: Sweatshop
sweatshop in Indonesian: Sweatshop
sweatshop in Dutch: Sweatshop

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