Plight of Sweatshop Workers


"Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of 
employment, to just and favourable conditions of work. . .Everyone 
has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and 
well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, 
housing and medical care and necessary social service." These are 
excerpts from the Declaration of Human Rights. Written over 50 years 
ago, the Declaration was created to give, "inherent dignity 
and. . .equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human 
family." The Declaration gave hope to many people across the globe 
who were living in tyranny and oppression, hoping for equality and 
fair treatment. Unfortunately for some, this document turned out to 
be merely one of false hope and lies. The people I speak of are our 
fellow human beings working under slave-like conditions in 
sweatshops. To them, the aforementioned promises are just a myth, 
something they can only dream about. As the aforementioned articles 
state, all human beings are guaranteed fair pay and working. Are not 
those sweat shop workers human beings? Of course they are human 
beings! Sadly, they're not treated like it. They're forced to work 
and incredible number of hours, under hazardous conditions and at 
ridiculously low wages. Don't they deserve the rights the Declaration 
mentions? Of course they do! This is the exact reason that such 
treatment can't continue. Something must be done. 

 Although proponents of sweatshops say that consumer demand 
for the lowest prices controls worker wages and conditions, they are 
just fooling themselves. If they want to talk about it economically, 
cheap labor actually debilitates the economy by driving wages down 
and forcing the lack of money which can only lead to a recession. In 
addition, workers who are paid less, are in turn less motivated to 
work. In addition, as economist Hazel Henderson explains:
Many international manufacturers are subsidized by sweatshop wages. 
Once they exploit cheap workers in one area, they find even cheaper 
workers someplace else, so fragile societies get disrupted. Human 
rights groups need to inspect these factories, so we won't have world 
trade built on child labor, sweatshop wages and burning down rain 
forests. This short-term exploitation is just not sustainable. 
(Henderson 1)

 So, taking this into account, one can see the flaws in the 
oppositions argument that demand for low prices controls worker 
wages. Not only is there a problem in the oppositions excuses, but 
there are also problems with worker wages that need to be faced and 
dealt with. 

 As everyone knows, we live in a capitalistic society in which 
everyone tries to get ahead and make the most profit they can. 
Manufacturers are no different, they too are capitalists trying to 
maximize profit as best they can. But there still must a point where 
a line must be drawn. At this point, the manufacturer must realize 
that workers are human beings and that their well being is worth more 
than any profit. In most cases, clothing manufacturers hire 
contractors to make their clothes. These contractors can range from 
expensive to cheap. Most often, the expensive ones are those 
contractors who do the job themselves, legally. The other ones are 
the contractors who charge low prices because they, in turn, contract 
out low wage sweatshops. Not only does this profit the manufacturer, 
but it also makes the contractor more appealing to other 
manufacturers. So in most cases, sweatshops come about because of 
capitalistic greed. Because of this, sweatshop workers live in 
poverty and can barely, if at all, make enough to provide for 
themselves and their family. Although the situation is bad in the United States, it's much worse in other parts around the world. In a 
report entitled "How Do You Survive On 31 cents-an-Hour Wages?" 
published by the National Labor Council, a study was conducted on 
wages and living expenses for workers in sweatshops in Nicaragua. 
They found a pay stub, "from the NICSEDA factory (which the workers 
told us produces Polo Ralph Lauren) shows the hourly wages to be 2.08 
Cordobas or 0.21 cents." Furthermore, the average pay for a worker 
who put in a 56 hour week was $17.31. In addition, the report stated 
that the base wage for these workers was 10 cents an hour, which 
translated into $4.80 a week, $20.90 a month and $249.60 per year! 
This is outrageous. There is no way a person can live off those 
wages. The report left off by informing that these Nicaraguan 
workers were tired of their ridiculously low wages so in protest they 
were going to try to start a union. Their demands were a raise to 88 
cents an hour. This translates to $2,196, 48 per year. As one can 
see, these demands were not very high. Perhaps the only way they'll 
get it is by, as they started doing, forming a union. Unionization 
is a very important factor in workers winning some rights. 
Unfortunately, in some cases factory leaders just simply shut down 
the unionized factories and open up new ones where the unions are no 
longer in tact. In an article by the Clean Clothes Campaign, a story 
was reported about a woman who wished only to be called by her first 
name, Maria. She was a single mother who worked in a sweatshop. In 
January of this year, Maria was forced to switch contractors due to 
the fact that her old factory was shut down beacause the workers 
started forming unions. Because of the union, Maria was earning 
$1.50 per hour, which came out to $66 for a 44 hour week. 
Unfortunately, to combat the unions, the owner gave the workers an 
ultimatem: break up your union or the plant will be shut down and 
you'll have nowhere to work. Simply wanting to be treated faily, the 
workers didn't budge. In response, the owner closed the plant and 
relocated. As the report states, at her new job, which wasn't 
unionized, Maria earned only $20 for a 44 hour week. This was less 
than half of what she earned at her old job, which was at the 
standard wage for a single mother. Even when she tried to work 55 
hours of week, she still didn't have enough to provide for her and 
her child ("Leader" 1). This is typical of sweatshop wages. 
Sweatshop workers all around the world are facing the same situation 
as Maria. They work as much as their bodies will allow and yet it is 
still not enough to provide for their families. While wages are one 
obstacle facing the sweatshop worker, there are still several other 
issues that must be addressed. 

 One of the biggest problems facing sweatshop workers is the 
conditions under which they must work. Sweatshops vary in their 
conditions. One thing is certain though, on a scale the best 
conditions start at bad and the worst are judged as terrible. There 
is no bright spot to the scale. But according to the definition, (a 
workplace where workers are exploited in their wages or benefits and 
are subject to poor working conditions), the conditions are, by most 
accounts, hazardous and unsanitary. Typical conditions include 
sweltering heat and crowded working environments. In addition, in 
some cases there are not many fire escapes, water fountains, 
restrooms and other which are necessary to building codes. To avoid 
making any generalizations I will give you several examples of places 
where conditions are in desperate need of improvement. Olivia Given, 
a reporter of the Feminist Organization, spent the summer of 1997 
researching sweatshops. Given even went so far as to actually work 
there as part of her research. Of the conditions she said, 
Our guides told us about the hours they had worked in sweatshops: 7 
days a week, from 7AM to 10PM each day, with a half hour for lunch 
and one 10 minute afternoon break. . .Our guides said that during the 
week each room would be filled to capacity. There was no air 
conditioning. Open windows allowed the stale air in the workrooms and 
narrow halls to circulate and even let in a fresh breeze every once 
in a while. . . None of the workers would speak unless spoken to. 
Punishments for speaking during working hours, one of our guides told 
us, could range from physical punishment to firing. . . we 
distributed leaflets about workers' rights on street corners all over 
the garment district, one worker refused to take a flyer, pointing 
out that his boss was watching from a few feet away. (2) 

 Conditions such as these are terribly unfair. Not only is 
the worker forced to bear through hazardous conditions,such as the 
heat and the intimidation of losing their job, but when Given tried 
to hand out leaflets informing the workers of their rights, the fear 
of the boss made them wary. On top of all of that, the conditions 
they work in are so bad that they can be sometimes deadly. Perhaps 
the most well known case of sweat shop fatalities occurred on March 
26, 1911 in New York. This is the infamous Triangle Fired. A fire 
was sparked in this building but conditions didn't allow fire escapes 
so many workers, 141 to be exact, either burned or leaped to their 
death. If there had been proper fire escapes then many more could 
have survived. In addition, all the doors of the building opened 
only from the outside, that is, they opened inward. With these 
doors, no one was able to escape. This lapse in architectural 
judgement turned out to be a fatal one. Taking all these facts into 
account, raises one question: What is being done to help the workers?

 We as individuals can give a hand and put an end to current 
sweatshop working conditions. One of the most widespread actions 
being taken to protest sweatshops is a boycott. Many organizations 
such as NCL, Corporate Watch and The Bangor Clean Clothes Campaign 
are urging consumers not to buy products from clothing manufacturers 
such as Nike, Wal-Mart, Guess, and The Gap. According to a member, 
Dan Wisons, "These are the worst offenders. They make billions of 
dollars a year at the hands of people whom they treat like dirt. 
("Industry Leader" 3)." You too can join the campaign and take a 
step toward ending sweatshops. Another thing individuals can do is 
to write to companies in protest. You can send a letter or email the 
aforementioned companies and voice your opinion about their means of 
labor. In addition, college students are also pulling together to 
end sweatshops. The United Students Against Sweatshops is an 
international student movement that involves individual students from 
campuses all over America and Canada fighting for sweatshop free 
labor conditions and workers' rights. The USAS believe that 
university standards should be in line with its students. The 
students demand that clothing having the school's logo should be made 
in places where decent working conditions exist. In an article 
describing their cause, entitled "About us," the USAS also goes on to 
say, "Ultimately, we are using our power as students to affect the 
larger industry that thrives on sweatshops (1)." Furthermore, other 
organizations are also lending a hand to help the cause to end 
sweatshop conditions. One organization, UNITE, is helping workers 
form unions to get the fair labor conditions they deserve. Making 
their own union, UNITE already has over 500 members who are fighting 
for better wages, decent conditions and other rights. Other action 
that is being taken to combat the injustice, is at a government 
level. Last year Governor Gray Davis signed into law Assembly Bill 
633. The purpose of this bill was to crack down on sweatshop abuses 
in California. This bill imposed a "wage guarantee" which provided 
workers minimum wage and overtime, it also, "Establishes successor 
employer liability so that garment factories cannot shut down and 
reopen under a different name to avoid paying the wages of its former 
employees ("USA" 2)." Lastly, it allows garment workers employed by 
non registered contractors to take them to court over lost wages, 
damages and penalties. 

 When one considers the injustice the sweatshop worker deals 
with at the hands of corporate America, one cannot wonder how such 
actions are allowed. Where is the Declaration of Human Rights? This 
document declares rights to all humans. But somehow sweatshop 
workers are overlooked? They are human beings too. Something must 
be done to end this parade of abuse. Some action must be taken to 
mend the wounds of the worker.

Works Cited
1. "About Us." United Students Against Sweatshops. 8, May 2000. 
2. Green, Olivia. "Inside A Sweatshop: An Eyewitness Account." 24 
March 2000,  
3. Henderson, Hazel. "Interview With An Economist." Knowledge 
Management Magazine. January 28, 2000. 25 March 2000. 
4."How Do You Survive On 31 Cents-an-Hour Wages?" National Labor 
Council. 24 March 2000  
5. "Phillips-Van Heusen: An Industry 'Leader' Unveiled." Clean 
Clothes Campaign. 24 March 2000 . 
6. "USA: California Senate Passes Anti-Sweatshop Bill, Awaits 
Govornor's Signature" Corporate Watch September 9, 1999. March 24, 
2000 . 
7. "What is UNITE doing?." U.N.I.T.E. 8 May, 2000 


Quotes: Search by Author