Sweatshop: Is it Worth Working?


“Hours are long. Wages are pitiful. But sweatshops are the symptom, not the cause, of shocking global poverty. Workers go there voluntarily, which means—hard as it is to believe—that whatever their alternatives are, they are worse. They stay there, too; turnover rates of multinational-owned factories are low, because conditions and pay, while bad, are better than those in factories run by local firms. And even a local company is likely to pay better than trying to earn money without a job: running an illegal street stall, working as a prostitute, or combing reeking landfills in cities like Manila to find recyclable goods.” – Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist

Dictionary meaning of a sweatshop: A factory or workshop, especially in the clothing industry, where manual workers are employed at very low wages for long hours and under poor conditions.

Global Exchange, an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice since 1988 explains 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 and keeping a time card, paying overtime, and paying on time. The Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), the US garment workers union, says any factory that does not respect workers’ right to organize an independent union is a sweatshop. Global Exchange and other corporate accountability groups in the anti-sweatshop movement would add to this definition any factory that does not pay its workers a living wage—that is, a wage that can support the basic needs of a small family.

To keep labor costs low, apparel shop owners usually pay workers a “piece rate.” That means workers don’t get paid by the hour. Rather, their wage is based on the number of items—shirts, shoes, sock—they complete in a shift. If workers hope to earn a decent income, they have to work hard, and they have to work long. Basically, they have to sweat.

Around the world, garment workers spend dozens upon dozens of hours a week at their sewing machines to make the clothes and shoes that eventually end up on retailers’ shelves. Verbal, physical and sexual abuse are common. Workplace injuries occur regularly. The wages are low. And when workers try to organize to defend their interests and assert their dignity, their efforts are invariably repressed. In country after country, the stories are hauntingly the same.

Dosomething.org one of the largest global organization for young people and social change has 5.3 million members in 130 countries and tackle volunteer campaigns that impact every cause like poverty, discrimination and environment. They highlight various facts about sweatshops:

  1. Sweatshops often have poor working conditions, unfair wages, unreasonable hours, child labor, and a lack of benefits for workers. Take a stand and protest: Ask your school to make its apparel under fair conditions.
  2. In developing countries, an estimated 168 million children ages 5 to 14 are forced to work.
  3. America has stronger labor laws than most undeveloped countries, but it is not free of sweatshop conditions. Many labor violations slip under the radar of the US Department of Labor.
  4. Products that commonly come from sweatshops are garments, cotton, bricks, cocoa, and coffee
  5. A study showed that doubling the salary of sweatshop workers would only increase the consumer cost of an item by 1.8%, while consumers would be willing to pay 15% more to know a product did not come from a sweatshop.
  6. Sweatshops do not alleviate poverty. The people who are forced to work must spend the majority of their paycheck on food for their families to survive.
  7. Child labor is especially common in agriculture (98 million, or 59% of child laborers work in agriculture), followed by services (54 million) and industry (12 million).
  8. The majority of child laborers are found in Asia and the Pacific. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest prevalence, with one in five children in child labor.
  9. According to one survey, more than 2/3 of US workers experienced at least one pay-related violation in the previous work week. Assuming a full-time, full-year work schedule, workers lose an average of $2,634 annually due to violations.
  10. Because women make up 85 to 90% of sweatshop workers, some employers force them to take birth control and routine pregnancy tests to avoid supporting maternity leave or providing appropriate health benefits.

In an article published in Organic Consumers Association on Jan 23, 2015(an online and grassroots non-profit public interest organization campaigning for health, justice, and sustainability) a Norwegian young model cries in front of camera as she exclaims “What sort of life is this?” She is one of three young fashion enthusiasts who take part in online reality show about the horrors of sweatshop labor in Cambodia.

News published in Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper about the social experiment under which 17-year-old Jorgensen, 9-year-old Frida Ottesen and 20-year-old Ludvig Hambro flew to the Southeast Asian country’s capital of Phnom Penh, where they experienced a bit of a Cambodian textile worker’s life for a month in 2014.

The show covers what young models go through while they work and spend time in garment factories in Cambodia. They are astounded by the hardships workers go through in those sweatshops. Models experience something more than they can take and often break down seeing the life workers go through. See the show here.

On April 24rd 2013, 1120 workers died when Rana Plaza building collapsed in Dhaka Bangladesh. 3.6 million women workers are employed in Bangladesh garment industry where per capita income is $850.

There is no doubt that Bangladesh garment industry has benefited from the cheap labor offered by women – who tend to work for less than men – the industry has reduced the marginalization of women who were excluded from formal sector jobs.

I have lived and worked in Bangladesh for 6 years. While it’s an ongoing effort by the factory owners and government to offer a decent living wage, better working conditions, environment and facilities to workers, keeping in mind the inflation and other factors that affect the living cost; the garment industry offers huge job opportunity to women workers. In the absence of these jobs, women workers are left with not much of the options.

It’s a dilemma, and solving it will require cooperation among Bangladesh’s government, its private sector, its population, and the numerous foreign companies with an interest in giving worthwhile minimum wages and fair working conditions to workers, keeping the prices competitive.

How does this affect us and our buying choices as a consumer? If we knew, the shirt we are going to buy is made in a sweatshop, it is quite likely we might decline it. After all, we don’t want to wear something which has hurt someone while its manufacturing process. I think, however beautiful a garment might look, it is not worth if it is made in a sweat shop. As Mahatma Gandhi rightly said “There is no beauty in finest cloth of it makes hunger and unhappiness”.

I think, anyone would gladly offer 50cents or a dollar more on a piece of garment if they are assured that the money would go to improve the living wage of the workers who made those clothes for us, instead of adding it to the profits of retailers or manufacturers.

Is there anything we can do to help the workers who made our clothes on other side of the world? Yes, we can. Ask the retailer to publish minimum wage paid on every style they sell, on their website. Even better: ask the retailers and importers to print he minimum wage paid for a garment on the label or tag, of every garment sold.

If you are thinking this is not possible then read this. You might have underestimated YOUR (consumer’s) power.

Imagine wearing a shirt with the feeling of YOU able to help someone on other side of the world. Wouldn’t it make your day?




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