In 1900, workers formed the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) to organize against low wages and unsafe working conditions. In November 1909, ILGWU organized the first garment workers' strike, known as "The Great Revolt". The protest brought 60,000 New York City garment workers to the streets to fight for their rights. Women and children on the picket lines were beaten or targeted with guns. Yet, ILGWU prevailed, winning wage and hour standards and impartial arbitration of disputes. Still there was a long fight ahead.
Sweatshop conditions received further attention after a fire in New York's Triangle Shirtwaist factory in 1911. Locked exits prevented people from escaping. With no other hope, some jumped to their deaths from Triangle's high-floor windows, while others were burnt alive. One hundred and forty-six workers died.
Sweeping national legislation was finally enacted in 1938 when President Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This law - enforced to this day - sets a minimum wage, requires overtime pay after 40 hours a week, and prohibits child labor and industrial homework. It brought protection and relief to tens of thousands of people working in factories.
Why Sweatshops Are Back
Devastating budget cuts during the Reagan and Bush administrations severely limited US Department of Labor (DOL) policing of garment factories. There are now only 800 wage and hour inspectors employed by DOL to inspect six million work sites of all kinds in the USA. This often makes it easy to avoid inspection.
Sweatshops are often mobile operations, making them even more difficult to regulate. "The equipment is really just a few sewing machines," said Ginny Coughlin of UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees). "Just rent space, pay the electric bill, and you're in business."
New York City's Sweatshop Revival
Across the USA
Struggling to build a better life in their new country, Asian and Hispanic immigrants often work under slave-like conditions. They toil to repay thousands of dollars to those who smuggled them into the USA. Today, at the turn of the century, most garment workers are poor immigrant women.
Proposed Reform Legislation
The proposed law would make both contractors and retailers liable for violations of minimum wage, overtime standards, child labor, or industrial homework.
Supporters of the bill say clothing businesses must be held responsible -- companies can check their suppliers more readily than individual consumers can. The law creates strong incentives for businesses to ensure clothing is made under decent conditions. To date, this act has not been passed by Congress. You can support this act by working with the advocacy groups listed on our links page and by using the political lobbying techniques.
Addressing the Issues
The Giffords also took matters into their own hands: Frank Gifford gave envelopes of money to the workers. Angered that they not been paid in so long, many workers stayed home and did not receive this compensation.
Who Should Check the Manufacturers?
When asked if any company in particular was making substantial improvements, Braune said that the NLC was,"hard-pressed to make a distinction between any manufacturer." The only exception, the NLC believes, is El Salvadoran factories making clothing for The Gap. In 1995, The Gap signed an agreement with the NLC agreeing to independent monitors, not employed by The Gap. Instead they come from the Human Rights Ombudsman's offices in El Salvador and other Central American countries. The NLC believes that this is the model all manufacturers should follow.
However, Ginny Coughlin, spokeswoman for UNITE, said the best way to rid the garment industry of sweatshops is to organize workers. "Tremendous progress is being made ... more and more factories are unionizing." Although workers in the United States and overseas are also fired every day for trying to organize and educate themselves about their rights.
This web page and entire website ©
Copyright: 1997 - 2015 by Hearts and Minds Network,
Inc., Illustration © 2002 by Elaine Szumanski