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