Sweatshop is a term used to refer to any working environment whose conditions are unacceptable. The overriding characteristics of the industry are long working hours and poor payments regardless of the law provisions in those countries. In most cases, violation of child labor laws is prevalent and employees are subject to abuse by the employer without an easy way out.
The definition used in the United States for a sweatshop is, “an employer who violates two or more of the federal or state labor laws governing compensation, child labor, occupational safety and health, industrial homework workers’ compensation, or industry registration.” In most cases, sweatshops are involved in human trafficking. In almost all cases, sweatshops in the United States are companies in the garment producing companies ranging from the mega companies to their contractors and subcontractors.
The concept of sweatshops has its origin from the early 19th century in which case, an intermediary- normally referred to as the sweater- directed others in the process of producing clothing, under arduous conditions. The tailors would contract an intermediary who would in turn subcontract another intermediary ultimately; the subcontracted sweater would engage the worker at piecework for each garment.
The intermediary would make profit by looking for desperate workers whose payments were minimal and end up paying least per unit of labor. The term sweater for the intermediary and sweating system for the process of subcontracting characterized earlier works by critics of this system. In the last half of the century, sweatshops had attracted many people to the growing cities immigrants being from neighboring countries being most among the numbers.
The exploitation of workers by the sweating system was unopposed by other parties for a short while. In the late 19th century, a party named National Anti-Sweating League founded in Australia and a few years later, another body with the same name started in the UK to fight against the abuse of workers by the sweating system.
The success of these two lead to formation of other parties to defend the rights of the sweatshop workers. Ultimately, this made the existence of sweatshops rare especially in the original sense but did not eliminate them. History has proved that sweatshops are a difficult issue to deal with since it is first an economic issue.
Arguments for sweatshops
Thefight surrounding sweatshops has taken two sides with one group advocating for them while another fighting against them. Both groups have put forward arguments to support their views on the issue.
The proponents based their first argument on the economic theory of comparative advantage in which case they argue that international trade will work for the good of both parties. This therefore means that as the developing countries lack the technology of production employed in the developed countries, they should employ what they have for production of those goods.
About the working conditions, they are adamant that they are better than what they would have. According to the proponents, the sweatshops provide a better substitution to other activities like street prostitution, trash picking, and the like. According to them, it has made the lives of the workers at least better than if they did not employ them.
Thefirst argument from the opposing side of sweatshops is that, most workers in the industry are unable to buy some of the goods they make even though they are commonplace commodities. According to them, economic development would result from other activities as opposed to sweatshops. Another argument is the aspect of violation of the labor laws, connection with human trafficking and child labor, which leads them to lead slave-like lives with the vulnerability of abuse and sexual harassment from the employers.
A case in San Francisco
Companies can be deceiving when you listen to the ideas and slogans shouted from the management desk. Indeed, many companies known by the public to be socially responsible in contrast violate the labor laws including the minimum wage requirement. Esprit- a company known for its garments made from organically grown cottons and wools tinted with natural dyes- is such a company (Udesky, ESPRIT: Sweatshops Behind the Labels ).
By 1994, the management had played consumer level politics and it worked perfectly in promoting the company as socially responsible. On the other side, the companies play politics at the production level in that even though they invest in community-based projects, in their quest to minimize the cost of labor, they result to sweatshops that violate the labor laws, their behavior going beyond irresponsibility meaning that at time the workers are not even paid.
The fight against sweatshops has not come without pains. In 2005, the San Francisco Chronicles reports that the number of garment workers in the bay area had dropped to 3500 from the 30000 that worked there in 1982 and the 12000 in 2002. According to the report, Esprit and other two largest garment manufacturers in San Francisco had their production carried out in other nations.
The closure of the local factories implies the level of job insecurity of the garment workers and the struggles the subcontractors have to face. The reason for this shift to offshore production is the expiry of the global system of quotas, which had provided restrictions for clothing coming in from member countries of the WTO.
This shift to offshore production should not be taken to mean non- existence of sweatshops in San Francisco. Reportedly, in February 2007, the department of labor forced Reuben’s Garment Cutting and Marking Company to pay $66,066 withheld from 57 employees. Allegedly, the contractor did not record the number of hours the employees worked, paid the on Saturdays, and denied them overtime (Santa Clara University n.d.).
Ultimately, it is of great importance to note that the fight against sweatshops has not been easy. The battle started back in the 1th century but in the 21st century, it remains to be a problem in the society. The fight has not been without pains for we consider the contradicting interest of the owners of the factories and that of the government to protect its people and the economy.
The formulation of laws to address the problem has yielded uncomely response from the factory owners by them investing in other countries. Those who did not close their factories are still violating the labor law requirements and abusing their workers. In San Francisco, these factories still exist and even though they operate as underground factories; they still close and reopen at times. This existence calls for the government especially the department of labor to act towards the elimination of these factories.
Santa Clara University. “US States News.” n.d. 30 jan. 2012
Udesky, Laurie. “ESPRIT: Sweatshops behind the Labels.” n.d. 30 Jan. 2012