The Dangers of Sweatshops in Clothes Production

January 29, 2019

Caitlin Cleary

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The history of sweatshops is a long and tedious one. Sweatshops are defined by the U.S. Department of Labor as a factory that violates at least two federal labor laws. Sweatshops first emerged in London, Paris, and New York City and hired migrant workers who had few other employment options.

By nature, the unhygienic conditions of sweatshops exploit and endanger workers. Sweatshops have persisted throughout history because they require a supply of cheap, easily replaceable labor. They pay a salary far below the minimum wage. Companies utilize sweatshops to produce mass amounts of goods at a low price, in order to maximize profits.

From the 1830s through the 1850s, sweatshops were extremely present in the Lower East Side, known as the Garment District, of New York City. Controversy surrounding them first arose in the early 19th century, intandem with the abolitionist movement. These early factories were crowded, poorly ventilated, rat infested, and contained multiple fire hazards. In response to these deplorable conditions, in 1910 the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was founded. The organization sought to upgrade factories in the hopes of making them more safe and hygienic.

The United Kingdom’s Factory Act of 1833 was the first significant law implemented to address the uninhabitable conditions of sweatshops. This act limited the hours in a work day and outlawed child labor in textile factories. This act later expanded to apply to all factories, however this did not include small workshops until 1891. Advocates for sweatshop reform found common ground with trade union movements, Marxists, and supporters of socialist politics.

In 1919, the International Labour Organization under the League of Nations and later the United Nations took steps to protect factory workers. The United States passed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 during President’s Roosevelt’s New Deal to create a minimum wage, and mandated “time-and-a-half” pay for overtime work, which was defined as 40 hours a week. This law also outlawed child labor.

In 2013, the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, a building with five stories of sweatshops, collapsed, killing 1,135 people. This tragedy occurred because the building was not up to code structurally. Since this incident, multiple governments have taken initiative in enforcing stricter labor laws in order to protect workers employed in factories.

Today, there is still a movement to eradicate sweatshops completely, and to increase the minimum wage. China has historically had many sweatshops because of its relaxed labor laws, low minimum wage, and high population. However, sweatshops are still prevalent today, and fuel large, national companies such as Nike, Uniqlo, H&M, and Adidas. Sweatshops are the embodiment of greed and exploitation on the part of factory and company owners.