A century ago, American workers and politicians made great strides in eliminating sweatshops in filthy factories across the big cities in America. But recently, sweatshops have been making an unfortunate comeback.
When someone says the word ‘sweatshop,’ the mind automatically pictures a cramped, filthy, dangerous factory in a large industrial city district such as New York’s Lower East Side. A century ago, immigrant women and their children worked for long hours inside factories such as these for very little pay and no benefits. Many workers had to bring home even more work in the evenings, just to make ends meet, despite working 15 hours or more during the day.
In 1900, a group of workers gathered together and created the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) in order to protest and condemn the unsafe working conditions as well as the minimal wages they were being paid. Nine years later they organized the very first strike of garment workers, which became known as ‘The Great Revolt.’ This protest resulted in more than 60,000 workers walking the streets of New York City carrying signs to protest the conditions and fight for their rights. The women and children standing on picket lines were either targeted with rifles or beaten for participating. Yet ILGWU was able to win, securing standards for wage and hour limitations as well as impartial dispute arbitration.
But the problem of sweatshops continued throughout the garment industry and others. A fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York drew harsh attention to the underlying danger, because people were unable to escape due to being locked inside the building. Some people jumped to their deaths out of the windows on upper floors, rather than burn to death like many others were. In total, 146 workers died, solely because of the working conditions.
In 1938, President Roosevelt signed into effect the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which was a national legislation that prohibited industrial homework and child labor. The law established a minimum wage and legislated that workers be paid overtime pay for anything beyond 40 hours a week. It brought immediate relief and protection to tens of thousands of people who were working in factories across America.
Recently, however, many manufacturers have moved their operations overseas and workers’ unions have lost some of their power. Budget cuts enacted during the Reagan and Bush administrations put severe limits on the Department of Labor’s ability to police garment factories, and now there are only 800 DoL inspectors available to police more than 6 million factories of all kinds. As a result, sweatshops have begun to flourish again, and violations of FLSA regulations have become rampant.
Today, they are often operations that are mobile, which makes them even more hard to police and regulate. Equipment can be as minimal as just a few sewing machines. All employers tend to do is rent temporary space, pay an electric bill, and they can then hire workers-often undocumented-and make them work long hours for little pay.
The DoL estimates that about half of the 22,000 garment contractors registered in the US are paid less than minimum wage, 2/3rd do not receive overtime pay, and more than 1/3rd work in an environment with serious safety and health violations. Workers who try to protest their poor working conditions run the risk of being fired. The DoL estimates that more than half of the 7,000 garment factories in New York City are now sweatshops. Steam from the clothing presses spews out from pipes that have been stuck out through boarded-up windows, and the buildings have locked doors.
New York isn’t the only culprit, though; these filthy workplaces are a common fixture in other big cities that have large immigrant communities. Los Angeles, for example, has Hispanic and Asian immigrants who often work in conditions as slaves, toiling to repay the thousands of dollars they owe to people who smuggled them inside the US. Most of the garment workers in these large cities are immigrant women who are poor. A recent example of a modern-day sweatshop came to light in 1995, when a federal raid in El Monte, California, discovered 72 immigrants from Thailand who were working for USD 0.69 per hour, and were locked inside an apartment complex that was surrounded by razor wire. The workers had been threatened with being raped or killed if they stopped working.
Media coverage has led to public outrage against these factories, and has resulted in the Stop Sweatshops Act, which is now being discussed in Congress. The act states that sweatshops have unhealthy, unsafe working conditions, which often include poor ventilation and locked exits; low wages or no pay at all; long work hours and no overtime pay; and the threat of retaliation against any workers who try to stand up for their rights.
If the proposed law is passed, contractors and retailers alike would be liable for any violations, but it has not been passed yet. Although progress is being made in ferreting out these illegal factories, most of that progress is due to the media, such as when it was widely reported that the National Labor Committee had discovered that a line of clothing, endorsed by Kathie Lee Gifford, was being made in sweatshops in Honduras. The intense media coverage and publicity resulted in Gifford signing an agreement with the NLC, and the manufacturers agreeing to have their factories independently monitored. So the media is playing a vital role in bringing this problem to the forefront of public consciousness. Hopefully, it will not be long before Congress follows their lead, and American sweatshops will be eradicated for good.