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Sweatshops in the Garment Industry: History, Immigrants, and Exploitation

The Definition of a Sweatshop


The modern days, I would say yes. There are many companies I won’t mention here but that I have work for that they won’t raise they’re minimum wage to start somebody, they give you what they want, because they clearly know anybody that applies to them is in need.
The structure of the industry was so much a part of the definition of a sweatshop that before 1900 people spoke more about the "sweating system" than about the "sweatshop" per se. The term "sweating system," as well as the use of the word "sweat" as a transitive verb, originated in Britain, probably in the 1830s or 1840s. The word "sweatshop" itself was in use by the 1890s and may have been American in origin. Soyer, D, (1999) While evocative of hard work, harsh discipline, and bad conditions, the real meaning of all of these terms lies in their graphic and physical description of the system of exploitation by which small employers, usually contractors, could only profit by extracting every ounce of value from the labor of their employees. While workers may sweat because they are driven by the boss to exert themselves in a hot, airless environment, they are "sweated" because the boss needs to get as much as he can out of them in order to survive on a narrow profit margin in a labor-intensive, low-capital, highly competitive, and hierarchical industry. Soyer, D, (1999)
Immigrants have always constituted much of the garment industry's labor force, and most contractors belong to the same ethnic group as their employees. The rise of the contracting system coincided with the great influx of Yiddish-speaking Jews from the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. Soyer, D, (1999) By the turn of the century, this group had become the dominant presence in the industry, a majority of both workers and bosses. Italians, who entered the industry in large numbers in the 1890s, formed the second largest ethnic group in the New York needle trades. They made up the vast majority of the industry's most exploited sector, its homeworkers. Soyer, D, (1999)
Contractors, though, have always vociferously disagreed with the notion that they bear ultimate responsibility for conditions in their shops. Prices, work schedules, and styles are all dictated by the manufacturers or retailers, the small employers point out, leaving the contractors with little room to maneuver. Soyer, D, (1999) In the early years, in fact, contractors reasoned that since they too were exploited by the large manufacturers, they belonged in the same unions as their employees. The unions soon officially rejected this claim, but at least one prominent labor leader got his start as a Chicago garment contractor. Similar voices can still be heard, although the accents are different. Soyer, D, (1999)
FOR MANY YEARS AMERICANS ASSUMED, NOT entirely accurately, that the sweatshop was a thing of the past. Yet today almost everyone agrees that sweatshops are back. Soyer, D, (1999) The headlines in the newspapers bear remarkable similarity to those of one hundred years ago: immigrant workers--now Chinese and Latinos, rather than Jews and Italians--exploited ruthlessly by immigrant bosses, and small contractors complaining of being squeezed by the large manufacturers and retailers. Even some of the actors are the same. The National Consumers' League, for example, calls on buyers to shop responsibly, as local, state, and federal governments debate what to do about the problem. (The U.S. Department of Labor has recently emulated the early tactics of the League, developing a list of retailers and manufacturers who maintain certain standards in their contracted shops.) Soyer, D, (1999)
What is to be done about the problem? History shows that the "sweating system" has always been a part of the garment industry, and globalization may make it even more difficult to redress the abuses. New strategies by unions, government regulators, and enlightened consumers, however, can certainly help to alleviate sweatshop conditions at home and abroad. In New York, for example, UNITE has opened up workers' centers to assist nonmembers, including those in this country illegally, as well as members. Soyer, D, (1999) The North American labor movement has also begun to reach out to its counterparts in countries that produce goods for the American market. Finally, labor and consumers' groups have waged campaigns to expose abuses in overseas factories working on contract for American companies, pressuring those corporations to agree to independently monitored codes of conduct to regulate working conditions and wages. Today, pinning down responsibility for the sweatshop remains as difficult, and as important, as it was a century ago.

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