Special Report: Child Labour and Sweatshops – Who Made YOUR Shirt?
Sweatshops, while an ugly scene, in the United States, is a tradition in many parts of the world. In fact, it was once commonplace in the United States. In the early 1800s, it is reported that one-third of America’s labour force consisted of children aged 7 to 12. It took America nearly 100 years to obliterate these shops as an accepted and legal means of doing business, and some sweatshops are still reported to exist in the U.S. Every now and again, a one of these shops with underage employees is exposed on U.S. soil. In other countries and areas of the world, the job of eradicating these unethical sweatshops is extremely difficult and is likely to take many years.
What Are And Where Are Sweatshops?
As the name implies, these shops are uncomfortable, unsanitary, and either very hot or very cold. Workers are often subjected to physical or sexual abuse, and are paid wages so low they are unable to escape the financial hole they are in. Sometimes child laborers are not allowed to leave the workplace to go home, or they are sold into slave labour and taken far from their families. They can be found all over the world, especially where countries are developing. And a “made in USA” label does not mean that the item is not being made in one of these illegal shops. For example, a shirt may be manufactured in a United States territory in a country where sweatshops are common and the laws are lax, but the label can still say “made in the USA.” Workers are easily exploited because some areas (such as the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands) claim exemption from the US labour laws regarding a child.
Also, no country is completely free from these unethical shops. A “made in the USA” label could mean the garment was still produced in a an illegal shop on American soil and made by child labour.
While sweatshops have been uncovered in Pakistan, Latin America, China, and other areas, India, with its booming and growing economy, has been described as the “world capital for child labour.” The United Nations apparently reported that over 50 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are working in the business sector.
The demand by Americans and other developed nations for cheap clothing means labour costs must be cut. And this form of labour comes very cheap. So we get what we pay for, and who’s gonna be able to buy your stuff when everyone’s jobs have been outsourced for cheaper child labour and where will this problem end?
Sweatshops In America
At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, children were employed in factories, coal mines, and other places for long hours and low wages. Various unions and organizations rose up in opposition to these sweatshops, but nothing was officially done to end children in the workforce until 1938, when the Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted. This law defined standards for working children on the federal level, setting minimum pay and age for employees. But sweatshops continued to operate, just clandestinely.
In 1995, police conducted a raid on a compound of seven apartment buildings in California. They discovered 72 illegal immigrants from Thailand. These workers were essentially held captive, forced to sew garments. This incident in El Monte, California was not, unfortunately, unique, but it did garner media attention. Thus, the American public was made aware of the presence of sweatshops, outraged, and spurred to action.
The problem still exists, however. In 1999, a conference was held in Chicago, at the University of Illinois. The purpose of the conference was to learn about workers’ conditions in the Windy City. Workers’ experience was included in the forum of union, legislative, and community organization representatives, employers, researchers, members of the religious community, and others.
Is It Really That Bad?
Come on, some people say. A child can work at certain jobs and it can be good for them. Look at the young children with paper routes in the United States, or young people who babysit or walk dogs. A child can be gainfully employed without abuse, it’s said. But dog walking, babysitting, and paper routes are not an illegal workshop. And conditions in these places have been described by inside investigators.
Others like to point to the economic advantage of it, claiming it gives opportunities to the child and their families that they otherwise would not have. But the numbers do not add up to support this. Due to the low pay and bad conditions, working in one of these shops rarely improves any workers’ economic situation.
In one sweatshop in India, investigators found children working in an impoverished, industrial area making clothing for a well-known, international clothing chain. The conditions were unsanitary, with grime smeared in various places and one overflowing toilet for all the children to share. Reports of physical abuse and children being forced to work for days with little to no sleep were brought to light. And this particular clothing chain has a policy that its contractors are not to use it – but it still happens. Once the shop was discovered and brought to the attention of the clothing chain, it withdrew the clothing from stores that had been made in the illegal factory. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen again, despite this and other companies’ insistence that their contractors and vendors not hire children. (The term “hire” is used loosely here – many of the children that work in these places work for free in what amounts to slave labour. So why does it keep happening when so many powerful companies have anti-sweatshop policies?