Sweat out the Sweatshops In the early 1800’s, the seamstress, was common figure in American cities. The seamstress was a skilled mender of clothing, a much needed but under valued member of American society. There was the seamstress and there was the dressmaker. Although the seamstress and the dressmaker had comparable skill in those days, they did not have comparable in incomes (Leibhold, 1998). Dressmakers were often hired to make entire outfits and wardrobes for the wealthy, and thus made a very good living for themselves. The seamstress earned their living by piece work.
Sewing precut fabrics into garments for Southern slaves, Western miners, and New England Gentlemen (Leibhold, 1998). The wages were not enough to take care of themselves or their families. By 1880, the garment industry was rapidly expanding and immigrants began to converting small apartments into contracted sewing shops (Leibhold, 1998). These contractor shops doubled as sewing shops and living quarters for the employees. Employees were expected to work for 16 hours a day being paid pennies by the piece (Leibhold, 1998). The apartments housed 8 to 10 employees in family units, who worked, slept, and ate in the same space.
Conditions were unsanitary and unsafe. Workers became sleep deprived, hungry, and dehydrated. There was no standard for personal hygiene and workers often became ill from disease under those circumstances. Contract shops were coined as sweatshops because of the conditions immigrants were expected to work in (Leibhold, 1998). By the 1940’s sweatshops were very common in America. Between 1940 and 1960, an awareness of worker rights began to take place, unions helped organize American workers to force employers to provide better working conditions.
Congress passes legislation to improve working conditions and raise the American worker from the sweatshop environment to safer and more profitable circumstances (Leibhold, 1998). In the 1960’s, the United States made sweatshops illegal and required the clothing industry to provide better working environments and shorter hours and better wages to the seamstresses who worked for them. Changes in import/export laws changed, opening market opportunities in other countries. In addition, changes in the economy shifted making it favorable for garment makers to out source the garment assembly to overseas workers.
Sweatshops were being set up all over the world, out of reach from the United States government, and garments were imported into the U. S. to be sold in the domestic markets. The ethical dilemma with the use of sweatshops is that they violate and exploit the individuals who have nowhere else to turn to make a living. Sweatshops, here in America and abroad, do not provide for the basic health and safety of the individuals who work in the facility. Sweatshop operators are driven by competitive greed without any thought of the basic human rights of the employees (Radin. 006). They victimize the under privileged and prey on the vulnerable. Today, sweatshops still exist in America. They almost always employ illegal alien workers who were smuggled into the United States. While local the Federal Government works to shut down existing sweatshop on domestic soil, many more are being used abroad to produce America’s latest fashions. People are still puzzled by the continued existence of sweatshops in spite of the negative press that companies have received for using sweatshops for production (Radin. 2006).
One example is the use of sweatshops in Honduras to produce a line of clothing for Cathy Lee Gifford. The line was to be distributed by Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world (Radin. 2006). Other known brand names like Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Levi and many more, use sweatshops to produce their clothing lines. Although the negative press has some effect on the industry, sweatshop practices are still very prevalent in the industry. Underdeveloped countries do not have laws protecting their citizens from sweatshop working conditions.
Many countries welcome the arrival of any industry because it provides jobs, which is more than the governments can provide themselves. Although sweatshops are widely being censored in the U. S. by labor unions, and activists, sweatshops continue to endure in other countries largely because they receive approval and support of governments, societies and even the employees (Radin 2006). Sweatshops continue because, as harmful as it is to the vulnerable and victimized, there are very little alternatives (Radin. 2006). The result is that the ethical dilemma runs into a stalemate.
The reality is, many of our garments and textiles today are still produced in sweatshop environments, and will continue to do so until companies raise their ethical awareness and find other ways to manufacture their garment inventory. In 1996, President Bill Clinton directed the Department of Labor to align the clothing industry in effort to self regulate and stop the use of sweatshops for the production of clothes (DOL, 1997). The Apparel Industry Partnership was created and an agreement was presented to President Clinton On April 14, 1997 (Radin. 2006).
The agreement included a code of ethics and a plan to completely eliminate sweatshop activity in the U. S. Many companies have since published a “corporate code of responsible contracting” committing to U. S. consumers that alternatives to sweatshop production will be found and used in manufacturing. By 2004, the regulation of the health and safety was fully turned over to the Occupational Safety and Heath Association (OSHA). OSHA regulated the health and safety in all industries in the United States, however, sweatshops are still being discovered in the inside American boarders.
In addition, the use of sweatshops overseas is still a regular practice among many of our fashion leaders. Sweatshops will continue to be a hot ethical topic for the next decade. As long as there is a demand for fashion clothing, the use of sweatshops will exist. In underdeveloped countries, sweatshops are often the most promising economic opportunity available (Kristof, 2009). The only way sweatshop manufacturing will cease around the world is if one of the following takes place: 1. Companies actually change the way they produce their clothing lines, 2. world organization, like International Labor Office (ILO), can put pressure on countries who allow sweatshops to exist, or 3. sweatshop employees have real alternatives to their working conditions. Unfortunately, none of these solutions are very practical. As long as there is a demand for fashion clothing, there will always be a demand for sweatshop labor to make them. References Radin, T. J. , & Calkins, M. (2006). The struggle against sweatshops: Moving toward responsible global business.
Journel of Business Ethics, 66(2-3), 261-272. Liebhold, P & Rubenstein, H. (1998). Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops, 1820-Present. HistoryMatters. Retrieved May 21, 2010 from: http://historymatters. gmu. edu/d/145. DOL 1997. Apparel Industry Partnership’s Agreement. Retrieved May 21, 2010 from: http://actrav. itcilo. org/actrav-english/telearn/global/ilo/guide/apparell. htm. Kristof, N. (2009). Where sweatshops are dreams. New York Times. Retieved May 21, 2010 from: