Women and Sweatshops


A sweatshop is a work place, often a factory, in which employees work long hours at low wages under poor conditions. Although sweatshops virtually disappeared after World War II because of increased governement regulations and the rise of unions, they have reappeared, and are steadily increasing in number throughout the world. This is due, in large part, to economic globalization. Multinational corporations have been moving production facilities out of democratic, industrial nations into impoverished, developing countries in order to take advantage of cheap labor and to avoid scrutiny from governments and human rights organizations. MNC's are concerned with the production of goods for world markets at lowest possible costs in order to maximize profit. Unfortunately, the exploitation of workers is commonly a consequence of this global "development". Suprisingly, sweatshops are not restricted to poor and developing nations. The Department of Labor indicates that 50% of garment factories in the U.S. violate two or more basic labor laws, establishing them as sweatshops. Sweatshops exist wherever there is an opportunity to exploit workers who lack the knowledge and resources to stand up for themselves. Typical sweatshop employees, ninety percent of whom are women, are young and uneducated. Many of them are recent or undocumented immigrants who are unaware of their legal rights. Young women throughout the world are subject to horrible working conditions and innumerable injustices because corporations, many of which are U.S.-owned, can get away with it.

Conditions in Sweatshops

Sweatshops violate women's human rights throughout the world. Common abuses include low wages that fail to meet basic costs of living, substandard and unsafe working and living conditions, long hours of overtime for which employees are not compensated, and sexual harassment. In addition to these, women are often forced into indentured servitude. Lured by recruiters who promise wonderful opportunities in foreign lands, young women often pay thousands of dollars in recruitment and contract "fees", tying themselves to contractual obligations that can last for years. Because their wages are often only $.10 to $.20 per hour, the women may receive no wages for years as they attempt to pay off these debts. If the women try to return home without fulfilling their contractual obligations, they are often blacklisted, fined, or arrested. Many women are not paid even without such debt. Sweatshops often fail to pay their employees on time, if at all. The workers, who are often unaware of their rights, have no choice but to continue to work because sweatshop managers threaten and punish them for insubordination.

Many of these factories, as well as the women's living quarters, are crowded, filthy, and rat-infested. They are located behind barbed wire fences that are monitored by armed guards. Not only are the women not allowed to come and go freely, but they are forbidden to have visitors. Thus, they are not given the opportunity to air their grievances to anyone who may be in a position to help them. Additionally, the women are always under the threat of corporal punishment. The women are verbally abused, spat on, and beaten. They are not allowed to take breaks or go to the bathroom during their shifts, and are fined if they do so. In some Indonesian sweatshops, women were forced to take down their pants and reveal to factory doctors that they were menstruating in order to claim their legal right to menstrual-leave (Morey, 2000). Female sweatshop employees are forced to endure numerous instances of sexual harassment. Additionally, managers often make false promises for better jobs in return for sexual favors. In a Samoan apparel plant, the factory owner routinely entered the womens' barracks to watch them shower and dress (Greenhouse, 2001). A 20/20 investigation in Saipan sweatshops discovered that pregnant employees were forced to have abortions in order to keep their jobs (20/20 special investigation, 2000). These women are often faced with little if any choices. They are prohibited from unionizing, and face the loss of their job, physical abuse, or deportation if they try to better their situation.

Sweatshops are not restricted to factories. Agricultural workers all over the world are subject to poor working conditions, low wages, and unhealthy working environments. Women make up a large portion of field workers. They are exposed to toxic pesticides and strenuous working conditions that lead to a number of health problems (Co-op America, 2001). Like factory sweatshop workers, they are not given adequate healthcare, if any, and are prohibited from unionizing. Even in the U.S., agricultural workers are not guaranteed legal rights to minimum wage, workers compensation, and overtime pay (Co-op America, 2001).

"Made in the USA"

Although "Made in the USA" labels suggest that merchandise has been produced under U.S. standards and laws, these labels are often deceptive. The workers who make the products often labor under horrible conditions in U.S. territories. Saipan is part of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands. Women are often lured to Saipan by recruiters who promise great opportunities in the U.S.(Jansen, 2000). However, what they find are labor camps with horrible working conditions including physical abuse, debt bondage, sexual harassment, and so forth. Most of the women who are "imported" to work in the sweatshops in Saipan and other U.S. territories are from Asia , and many of the factories, themselves, are Asian-owned (20/20 special investigation, 2000). The women work under a controlled system of fear and domination. If they are fired for any reason, they are sent back to their homelands and are forced to pay heavy debts to the government officials who gave them the jobs(Collier, 1999).

Although most federal labor standards are supposed to apply in U.S. territories, corruption among local government officials and the failure of the U.S. congress to come to a consensus concerning legal issues allows for sweatshops to continue to operate. Because Saipan is able to set its own immigration policies, women can legally be duped into indentured servitude on U.S. soil. Saipan spends millions of dollars on Washington lobbyists and provides free trips to Republicans in Congress. Thus, many Republicans are fighting to keep the laws the way they are. However, Democrats are struggling to make reforms including the elimination of Saipan's exemption from immigration, customs, and minimum wage laws (Collier, 1999). A number of U.S.-owned companies import goods from Saipan including The Gap, Wal-Mart, J C Penney, and Sears Roebuck & Co. In 1999, several U.S. retailers were named in a lawsuit claiming that they had used false advertising and unfair business practices regarding the sale of products manufactured under sweatshop conditions in Saipan. This was the first legal attempt to hold U.S. companies accountable for the mistreatment of workers in foreign-owned factories on U.S. soil. The retailers often advertised "no sweat" merchandise despite the fact that much of their clothing is produced under deplorable working conditions. Many of these companies have settled, and claim to no longer do business with sweatshops.

The Daewoosa factory in American Samoa, a Pacific territory of the U.S., was closed in January of 2001 for horrible human rights violations. The factory produced clothing for the J C Penney Co., Target, and other U.S. corporations. The Vietnamese employees of this sweatshop were fed a diet of rice and cabbage broth, which lacked adequate nourishment. At times employees were given nothing to eat as a means of punishment (Greenhouse, 2001). Workers were forced to live in cramped living quarters, were unable to leave the compound as they pleased, and were cheated out of wages. Over 90% of the employees at Daewoosa were women. They were forced to endure unrelenting sexual harassment and physical abuse. One woman lost her eye when she was attacked by a Samoan plant supervisor and a female security guard because the supervisor believed her to be sitting idle while she was waiting for fabric to arrive (National Labor Commitee, 2001). Workers won a lawsuit against the Daewoosa plant for nonpayment of wages and contract violations. Unfortunately, the factory owner failed to pay the $600,000 in back wages and penalties, and now the factory is bankrupt. The Vietnamese workers are stranded in Samoa with no jobs and no money. If sent home, they are subject to imprisonment and fines for breaking their contract with Daewoosa (National Labor Comittee, 2001). Like Saipan, American Samoa is free from U.S. minimum wage and immigration laws. However, clothing made in Samoa is exempt from U.S. import quotas and tariffs.

Sweatshops Around the World

Despite international and domestic human rights agreements, many countries fail to protect the rights of their workers, and often have a hand in their exploitation. For instance, the trafficking of Thai women to Japan as means of cheap labor often includes debt bondage, forced labor and many other abuses. The Japanese and Thai governments fail to address these issues despite international obligations to protect the human rights of these migrant women (Human Rights Watch, 2000). These women undergo slavery-like conditions, and are literally "bought" and "sold" to employers. Many are forced to work without wages until they have repaid inflated "debts" and "fees", which may take years. The women are also subject to physical abuse, excessively long working hours, and sexual harassment (Human Rights Watch, 2000). These are abuses that are prohibited under Japanese and Thai domestic legislation and international law. Unfortunately, corruption and lack of concern among government officials exacerbates the women's situation.

Central and South America operate a number of sweatshops which violate workers' rights, particularly those of immigrants. In June of 2000, in Buenos Aires, authorities discovered forty Bolivian girls working in slavery-like conditions in a clandestine textile factory. It was discovered that they were forced to work up to 19 hours a day, were poorly-fed, and often beaten (Valente, 2000). The sweatshop was owned by a Bolivian immigrant. In Tehuacan, Mexico, workers are payed so little that they are forced to send their children to work in garment factories rather than school (Global Exchange, 2001). Guatemalan coffee growers, working on Starbuck's plantations, are paid poverty prices for their toil.

China is among the countries in which labor rights are violated regularly. Independent unions are not permitted, and the only organization allowed to represent workers is run by the Chinese Communist Party. Although China is in the midst of economic "reforms", these serve only to help the Chinese economy and foreign investors, not workers who, on the average, make less than $1.00 a day (Mann, 2000). A number of organizations have endorsed the U.S. Business Principles for Human Rights in China that calls for living wages (that meet basic needs), the prohibition of corporal punishment, bonded labor, and harassment, occupational safety, and the freedom to organiza unions. Organizations that have signed on include Amnesty International USA, the Fair Trade Foundation, Global Exchange, and many more. In order to stop the exploitation of workers around the world, however, corporations with the power and resources to influence governments and suppliers must put human concerns above profits.

U.S. Companies With Ties to Sweatshops

Many corporations use contract manufacturing firms to produce their goods. They separate themselves from the production of their goods and refuse to take responsibility for the conditions under which they are made. However, these companies actually dictate the labor standards of their suppliers. Corporations demand extremely low prices for merchandise. As a result, manufacturers, concerned with making a profit, cut employees' wages and compromise their safety. Foreign governments accomodate corporations, as well, by setting the minimum wage well below what is needed to meet basic needs, in order to boost national economic gain (Given, 1997). American companies get away with these type of business practices because the U.S. Labor Department requires only internal monitoring. Thus, there is no way to determine whether or not companies are honest about the conditions that they find. Unfortunately, even if violations of human rights are discovered, corporations are only held to negligible fines.

Many U.S. retailers have ties to sweatshops, which are usually foreign owned and operated. Nike moved production out of the U.S. to Taiwan and South Korea when workers demanded better wages. When democracy took hold in these regions, Nike moved production to Indonesia, Vietnam, and China (Given, 1997). Nike's Indonesian factories commit numerous violations of human rights and health and safety standards. Workers are paid only $2.00 per day. They are forced to work with toxic glues and chemicals without adequate training, masks, and gloves (Morey, 2000). Nike agrees to pay employees' medical bills only after they have been paid in full by the workers who can't afford to do so. Fear is a common tactic to keep workers in line. Many are afraid to ask to use the bathroom, and women who are menstruating have to wear multiple sanitary pads and black clothing to hide blood stains (Morey, 2000). Workers also have to endure verbal abuse, 60-70 hour work weeks, and humiliation. Nike's internal monitoring does very little to help the employees' situation. Monitors fail to discover many problems in the sweatshops because managers know of visits ahead of time and clean up the facilities, and because monitors rarely talk to the workers. Nike also has facilities in Vietnam and China with similar conditions. Nike denied allegations of abuses in its factories for years, but finally in May of 1998 Nike announced its pledge to follow U.S. occupational health and safety standards, end child labor, and allow external monitoring of its facilities (Corporate Watch, 2000). However, recent attacks against workers at a Korean-owned factory in Mexico that makes Nike clothing raises questions about their commitment (Global Exchange, 2001).

Wal-mart also promotes poor working conditions in factories. Facilities in China that produce clothing for the retailer pay their workers as low as $.13 an hour. Unfortunately, it is difficult to discover much about the practices in Wal-mart factories because Wal-mart refuses to disclose the names and locations of their sweatshops (Co-op America, 2001). Thus, neither the U.S. government nor consumers are able to discern how bad the conditions really are. The Gap produces clothing in six factories in Saipan. Although they use "Made in the USA" labels, they refuse to adhere to U.S. labor standards (Global Exchange, 2000). Indentured servitude, physical abuse and threats, and unsafe working conditions are among the violations in Gap factories in Saipan. In Russia, Gap factory workers are paid as little as $.11 per hour, and in Honduras Gap workers are forced to undergo mandatory pregnancy tests, work overtime, do not have access to locked bathrooms, and make $4.00 a day (Global Exchange, 2000). Although Gap claims to follow a "no sweat" code of conduct, it blatantly fails to do so. Disney has a number of suppliers in China who subject their employees to sweatshop conditions. Many of the factories require young women to pay "deposits" upon hire that put them in a situation of indentured servitude. Wages are low, and overtime is required in these factories. Workers do not receive health insurance even though it is required by Chinese law (Hong Kong Christian Industrial Commitee, 1999). Unfortunately, most of the young women who work in Disney's factories are unaware of their rights.

Efforts to End Sweatshops

In 1997, leaders in the apparel and footwear industry, nongovernmental organizations, and consumer groups met with President Clinton to announce a Workplace Code of Conduct. It includes prohibitions against child labor, forced labor, harassment and abuse, and discrimination, and it sets standards for health and safety, freedom of collective bargaining, fair wages and benefits, and overtime compensation. Members also agree to independent external monitoring. Members include Liz Claiborne Inc., National Consumers League, Duke University, Kathie Lee Gifford, and others.

University students have joined the anti-sweatshop movement. Students have demanded that their schools follow codes of conduct for University apparel. "In March 1998, Duke University passed the first anti-sweatshop code of conduct" (Co-op America, 2001). More than 100 schools have chapters of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). University codes call for full public disclosure of factory names and locations, independent external monitoring, and women's rights. Students work to inform the public about sweatshops. Public awareness helps to encourage corporations to clean up their business practices. The U.S. gives humaintarian aid to countries whose people are in poverty as a result of such practices. Meanwhile, company profits and CEO's salaries continue to skyrocket. Consumers can have a great deal of influence on corporations by refusing to buy products made in sweatshops.


Sweatshops are not simply a necessary evil of economic growth. They do not necessarily keep costs low for consumers and provide jobs where there would otherwise be none. Sweatshops exist because of corporate greed, international trade policies (that push indebted nations to exploit their own people), and the market's demand for quick production, low costs, and high profits. Workers should not have to endure unsafe and unfair working conditions so that corporations and corrupt government officials can get rich.

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