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Harsh Conditions Create Public Support for Reform

Historical Background
ENSsweatshop.jpg (42573 bytes)       The word "sweatshop" conjures up images of cramped, dangerous, and filthy factories in New York's Lower East Side. Immigrant women and children worked long hours in these factories for no benefits and little pay. To make ends meet after 15-hour workdays, many workers brought more work home in the evenings.

       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
       In recent decades, many garment manufacturers have moved overseas and unions have become less powerful.

       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."

Rampant Violations
       FLSA is not always enforced and violations are rampant. Sweatshops are again a familiar fixture in the garment industry. DOL estimates that 50% of 22,000 registered garment contractors pay less than minimum wage, two-thirds do not pay overtime and one-third operate with serious health and safety violations. Workers who try to organize and protest poor working conditions are often fired.

New York City's Sweatshop Revival
       New York City sweatshops operate behind locked doors -- often in the same buildings used more than sixty years ago in the Lower East Side and the Garment District. Steam from clothing presses can be seen spewing from pipes stuck through the boarded-up windows. DOL estimates that 4,500 of New York City's 7,000 garment factories are sweatshops.

Across the USA
       Sweatshops are also common in other cities with large immigrant communities. Greater Los Angeles is a major example.

       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.

A Shocking Example

       In August 1995, the nation was outraged by news that 72 Thai immigrants worked under slave-like conditions. Local and Federal law enforcement agents conducted a raid on this sweatshop in El Monte, California, just east of Los Angeles.

       The immigrants worked for 69 cents an hour, locked in an apartment complex surrounded by razor wire. Workers were threatened with rape and murder if they stopped working. After the raid, Labor Secretary Robert Reich launched a crusade against sweatshops.

Proposed Reform Legislation
       Media coverage of sweatshops has brought public outrage. In response, the Stop Sweatshops Act is now in the US Congress. The act defines sweatshops as:

...unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, often including locked exits and poor ventilation ... low wages or no wages, long hours of work with no overtime pay, and retaliation against workers who stand up for their rights.

       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 National Labor Committee (NLC), a human rights organization based in New York, is in the vanguard of exposing labor abuses. In April 1997, the NLC revealed that a line of clothing endorsed by Kathie Lee Gifford was made in Honduran sweatshops -- often by children. This was well publicized and resulted in a signed agreement between Gifford and the NLC. The manufacturers agreed to independent monitoring of their Honduran factories by local human rights organizations.

       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?
       Due to public outrage over sweatshop conditions, many clothing manufacturers now hire outside companies to inspect working conditions in their factories. This
third-party monitoring has become a growth industry, the NLC says, funded largely by the corporations being investigated. The concern is that manufacturers might influence their monitors to present an overly favorable picture to consumers.

       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.

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http://www.heartsandminds.org/articles/sweat.htm - latest text changes April 21, 2006

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