Why Are There Sweatshops?
The main reasons for the existence of child labour and the roles of children as child laborers in sweatshops are economic. For example, many of the children discovered in the Indian sweatshop mentioned above had been sold by their parents to recruiters. These recruiters make it sound as if parents will be giving their children a chance at a career and a life, getting them out of the farms and into the big city where they can succeed. And the recruiters offer the parents money for the child’s services. Being impoverished themselves, many parents can’t resist turning to child labor for their children.
Then reality hits.
In nineteenth-century American sweatshops, young workers were exploited as child laborers because their families needed money.
And of course, sweatshop owners themselves turn a healthy profit. They will continue to exist because they make or save someone, somewhere lots of money from this unethical labour. Pure greed is obviously a motivating factor for them.
It’s a myth, however, that these are necessary to keep final costs of garments and other items down. It has been documented that even doubling the wages of certain sweatshop workers would add less than 2 percent to the price of the garment.
-Social and Psychological Reasons
There are also social and psychological reasons for sweatshops’ existence. The vulnerability of a child and the ease with which their young minds can be manipulated makes them an easy target for cheap child labor.
In many Third World nations, the concept of child labor is not an odious one. From an early age, everyone in the family is expected to contribute to the family income and do labor of some sort to get paid. Childhood is seen as a time of learning, wherein someone can learn a practical trade. Although abductions and forced child labor do happen without parental consent, many times children who work in these places were encouraged to go there by their families. Or the families were paid to allow their child to go to work and become part of the child labour workforce.
One of the problems with ending the sweatshop as a means of production is that many of these exist in countries where democracy is non-existent. Workers can not form unions or have a voice, because no citizen does, and unethical labour practices flourish along with corruption. There is no free speech or adherence to basic human rights in many of these places. Workers can not lobby the government in the form of representatives to make their situation known. Some human rights activists suggest tackling the sweatshop problem by promoting democracy. Otherwise, the closing of one of them under a corrupt government simply means the opening of another where children are hired as child laborers to do the labour.
It’s important to realize that developing nations do not have the means in place to suddenly do away with these unethical shops and unethical labour and start operating like the modern United States, with health benefits, an 8-hour workday, and decent wages. There just isn’t the governmental structure or economic stability to do that. In fact, even with a democratic government as in the United States, it took a century for Americans to obliterate sweatshops officially (and, as noted already, they are not entirely gone from the U.S.).
-Poor Regulatory Practices
Another reason sweatshops continue to operate is because, despite all the policies and anti-sweatshop rhetoric, the clothing chains fail to audit and investigate their vendors thoroughly. And ferreting out sweatshops is no easy task – an attic, basement, outbuilding, or hidden room, filled with children, are all that are needed to run one of these “shops.” And sweatshop owners are savvy to Westerners’ aversion to sweatshops, and take great pains to keep them hidden from investigators. There are even reports of hidden floors and tricky architecture to thwart investigators. Knowing an inspection is imminent, sweatshop owners have been known to clean up the shop just for the inspection, then return to the oppressive conditions as soon as the inspectors leave. Still other owners of these hide children in sacks and boxes to evade inspectors.
Westerners demand and, as the world’s economic situation continues on a tenuous path, need access to inexpensive clothing. But Westerners would do well to ask themselves why a blouse, touted as hand-embroidered or hand-made, is only $10. We may find ourselves thrilled to be saving money on pretty, hand-made clothing, but we might ask whose hands, exactly, made this hand-made item, and must consider it was more than likely done by child labor.
-Lack of Clarity
Another problem is that there is no cut-and-dry definition of just what constitutes a sweatshop. This allows unethical vendors to have conditions that many people would find deplorable, but not technically constitute a “sweatshop.” There is no universal standard for child labor – how young is too young for children to do child labor? How many children have to be present for it to be “overcrowded”? What constitutes abuse? It is not as obvious a definition as it would at first seem. While some of these conditions for children are deplorable enough to be in obvious violation of labor laws, other labor laws are more vague, especially when it comes to children and child laborers.
The US Department of Labor does have a definition of a sweatshop for America – basically, a factory that “violates two or more labor laws” is considered a sweatshop. The laws being violated vary from those regarding benefits and sick leave to work hours and pay when it comes to child laborers. But they can find all sorts of loopholes and cover-ups that allow them to continue operating and using illegal child labour.
Sweatshop owners also have a tendency to move their shops wherever child labor is cheapest. Areas of global manufacturing shift, and the owners are never far behind, nor is child labour in sweatshops and child laborers.
Are There Watch-Dog Organizations For Sweatshops?
Yes, there are some watch dog organizations dedicated to what has come to be known as “social auditing.” Many of them are non-profit, and some clothing companies will coordinate with one of these organizations to inspect their factories and manufacturing facilities for child laborers. Some advocates of ending of these immoral workplaces point out that these organizations are too easily influenced by the companies they work for, and are subject to corruption. Some of these watch-dog organizations have been accused of letting violations “slide” in the interest of the clothing corporation, not of the child laborers.