Merriam Webster offers this succinct definition: a shop or factory in which employees work for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions.
It’s a good starting point, but it’s loose enough that there are still plenty of questions.
What do long hours, low wages and unhealthy conditions mean? Are there other factors? Is there a ‘one-size-fits-all’ definition for a sweatshop? What makes a sweatshop, a sweatshop?
1) (Extremely) Low Wages
We’ll dedicate a detailed post to sweatshop wages but to gain an initial understanding, here are some numbers we found:
Los Angeles is one of America's most important textile and garment hubs which is why we’re focusing on the city and not the country as a whole. According to an Al Jazeera article, garment workers can earn as little as 1.90USD – 5USD per hour, at a time when the minimum wage in California was 9USD an hour.
Bangladesh fares badly in setting minimum wage standards for the garment industry. Reports vary, but we’ve found numbers ranging from 30USD to 60USD a month.
Again, numbers vary. We have found sources which suggest wages can go as low as 0.30USD per hour.
Image Credit: Panos via KALW
2) Unhealthy Conditions
Unhealthy conditions cover a wide range of infractions that can cause pose serious risks to the health and comfort – both mental and physical – of workers. There are rampant reports of abuse by managers and lack of compensation for sick days, among other offences. Large scale, fatal disasters like building collapses and fires have, in the past, dominated headlines.
Often, these accidents are the result of safety policies not being faithfully enforced by factory owners; sadly, we only see the consequences when the dam finally breaks. It’s easy to forget the harsh working conditions on a daily basis, only being reminded of them when a tragic incident occurs.
3) Long Hours
The problem here is that many professions require long hours and so by themselves, they are not a human rights violation. However in sweatshops, there are additional factors which make long hours a problem.
Workers often work 6 or 7 days a week, sometimes 14-16 hours a day. They don’t get overtime nor are there mandatory days-off.
Image Credit: Solidarity Center
What else should we consider?
Children. Child labour is an endemic problem in many countries, notably India and Pakistan. It is estimated that there are 170 million children engaged in child labour which includes those employed in the textile and garment industry.
Child labour merits a closer look, together and apart from the larger sweatshop debate, something we will be studying in coming posts.
No, there is no one size-fits-all definition of a sweatshop. But different labour bodies and organisations have set up some parameters:
According to the US Department of Labor, a sweatshop is any factory that violates more than one of the fundamental US labor laws.
The Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), which is an American garment workers union, says any factory that does not respect workers’ right to organize an independent union is a sweatshop.
To wrap up…
This is a very early sketch of what a sweatshop means and what it could look like. In upcoming The Sweatshop Debate posts, we're going to break down the garment industries by country to see how working conditions, policies and regulations fare across the world.
The World Counts > Sweatshop Conditions
The Atlantic > Child Labour in Pakistan
Al Jazeera America > Sweatshop Conditions in LA's Garment Industry
The Guardian > India's Clothing Resources