Sweatshops Defined

After discussing my blog topic with various friends and classmates, it became clear to me that many people have incorrect images of sweatshops and have many misconceptions about what qualifies a factory as a sweatshop.

Part of the reason for the confusion is that there are several different ways to define a sweatshop. According to the US Department of Labor, a sweatshop is any factory that violates more than one of the fundamental US labor laws, which include paying a minimum wage, keeping a time card, paying overtime, and paying on time. The Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees, or the U.S. garment workers union, defines a factory that does not respect workers’ right to organize an independent union as a sweatshop. Other non-profit organizations for the protection of the workers define sweatshops as any organizations that do not provide enough wages for workers to support a family or as factories that fair to follow proper safety and health regulations.

Another question I frequently encountered when discussing my blog was why the clothing industry has such an extensive history of sweatshop use while other industries do not.

The softness of the garments used to make clothes, along with the complicated patterns involved, means that apparel production doesn’t easily lend itself to mechanization. Since its invention 150 years ago, the sewing machine has been, and remains, the best tool for manufacturing clothing. Sewing machines must be operated by people, sitting or standing and piecing together portions of cloth. What some people don’t realize is that every stitch of our clothes was made by a person hunched over a worktable, not by an automated machine.

Often, factories pay workers a “piece rate,” which means workers wages are based on the number of items they complete in a shift. If workers hope to earn a decent income, they have to work hard, and they have to work long. They have to sweat. (Click for a list of companies that have made the “Sweatshop Hall of Shame).

Copyright infringement and the high-quantity/fast-production business model (which Forever 21 uses) often lead to payment by piece rate, mandatory overtime or requirement to take work home. I will discuss how these issues are correlated and how they influence sweatshops and the industry as a whole in later blog posts.

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