Fashionistas Against Sweatshops
By Suzanne MacNevin

Sure, the clothes is high-quality and brand name... companies like GAP, Nike, Disney, Guess?, Tommy Hilfiger, Old Navy, Levis and many more have made a fortune by selling high-quality, brand name clothes made using sweatshop labour.

By paying poor women (and children!) in third-world countries pennies-a-day and forcing them to work 16 to 20 hours per day just to make ends meet, these companies take advantage of the poor people in countries where the economy is to weak to resist the bribery and extortion of a big corporation.

The Disney Company, despite its family friendly image, is actually a destroyer of families in third-world countries where they make their products.

Disney products, if you've ever went to the Disney Store in your local mall, are actually relatively expensive. The cost of manufacturing and shipping a Winnie the Pooh stuffed toy is less than $1/each, but they sell the product for $35/each.

The women, and sometimes children, who work in the sweatshop factories in countries like Thailand, Malayasia and Indonesia are paid less than a couple dollars per day, work 7 days per week, work even when sick, have no holidays, obscene 16 to 20 hours/day work schedules and are practically SLAVES.

Thats what sweatshop labour is: Slavery.

No ifs, ends or buts about it. Slavery. It takes advantage of poor people and forces them into a situation where they are forced to work just to survive. Work for the Disney Corporation or your family will die of starvation on the streets.

And the fashion industry isn't the only companies doing this: Your computer, parts in your car, even your Fine China dishes are regularly made in sweatshops. Most of the parts are made in legitimate "normal" factories, but in order to cut costs companies regularly outsource to "dummy corporations" which build and manufacture clothes, computers, car parts and electronics in illegal factories using sweatshops.

Over the years, boycotts have been very successful, but there is other things you can do.

You can return your products and demand a refund.

Especially after receiving a Xmas gift from an obscure relative who didn't know any better. They got you two shirts from the GAP or Old Navy... Here's what you do... take those shirts back to Old Navy or wherever and demand a refund. You don't even need the receipt. Just DEMAND your money back and make a huge fuss about how their company uses sweatshop SLAVE labour to make their clothes. The manager will end up gladly giving you a refund just to get rid of you.

If you cause a scene, they'll be willing to pay you just so they won't get a bad reputation.

If they refuse, go back again another day and keep making a scene until they finally pay-up.

These companies and the CEOs who run them KNOWINGLY use sweatshop labour because it increases profit margins and ends up boosting their stock value. Thats all they care about. The value of their stocks.

So which do you care more about? The value of some fat cat's stocks? Or the women who deserve to be paid more and have decent working hours?

It would cost less than 1% of their profits just to DOUBLE the pay they are giving the "slaves" who work in these sweatshops. But they don't do it because that 1% is hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions, of profit for the company that the CEOs and stockholders are unwilling to part with.

And its not just the brand name companies that we have to blame: Its also the department stores like Walmart, Zellers, Target and huge shopping malls where you can find cheap goods bought and sold in bulk, goods that are 50% likely to have been made in a sweatshop.

So what can you do about it?

Research the companies you buy from and make sure they don't use sweatshop labour.

Return products to those that do use sweatshop labour and DEMAND a refund.

Shop in alternative "fashion savvy" stores. It may cost a bit more, but you'll be getting an one of a kind item that is kewl and no one else has it.

Don't give up. You may feel like only one person, but you are setting an example every time you don't wear clothes made by a sweatshop company and everytime you "make a scene" when you return clothes.

Besides, making a scene can be fun.


Fact sheet prepared by Olivia Given.

What is a sweatshop?

The Department of Labor defines a work place as a sweatshop if it violates two or more of the most basic labor laws including child labor, minimum wage, overtime and fire safety laws. For many, the word sweatshop conjures up images of dirty, cramped, turn of the century New York tenements where immigrant women worked as seamstresses. High-rise tenement sweatshops still do exist, but, today, even large, brightly-lit factories can be the sites of rampant labor abuses.

Sweatshop workers report horrible working conditions including sub-minimum wages, no benefits, non-payment of wages, forced overtime, sexual harassment, verbal abuse, corporal punishment, and illegal firings. Children can often be found working in sweatshops instead of going to school. Sweatshop operators are notorious for avoiding giving maternity leave by firing pregnant women and forcing women workers to take birth control or to abort their pregnancies.

Sweatshop operators can best control a pool of workers that are ignorant of their rights as workers. Therefore, bosses often refuse to hire unionized workers and intimidate or fire any worker suspected of speaking with union representatives or trying to organize her fellow workers.

I thought sweatshops were a thing of the past. Why are we hearing so much about them again?

The notorious sweatshops of the age of Big Business (the late 19th and early 20th centuries) virtually disappeared after World War II because of increased government regulation of monopolies and the rise of trade unions. Sweatshops began to reappear again, however, during the 1980's and 1990's because of economic globalization. Today1s economy is described as global because advancements in technology have made it possible for large corporations that were once confined to a specific geographic location to become large "multi-nationals."

The popularity of the "free" market following the fall of Communism and a rise in anti-union sentiment, coupled with government programs (like NAFTA and GATT) designed to encourage free trade, have hastened the globalization process. Large corporations are now free to seek out low-wage havens: impoverished countries where corporations benefit from oppressive dictatorial regimes that actively suppress workers' freedoms of speech and association. Even in North America, where the North American Free Trade Agreement is supposed to enforce a minimum stardard for workers' rights, corporations concentrate in maquiladoras, "free trade zones" that were created by NAFTA, where the workers' rights provisions of the Agreement simply do not apply.

Corporations have been fleeing countries with relatively prosperous economies and stable, democracies in droves not only to take advantage of cheap labor, but to escape government scrutiny and criticism from human rights and workers' rights organizations. Guess? Clothing Co., for example, has always produced the majority of its goods in the U.S. but threatened to move 75% of this manufacturing to Mexico last year in response to Department of Labor citations and highly publicized humanitarian campaigns about Guess?'s California contract sweatshops.

Are there sweatshops in the U.S.?

According to the Department of Labor, over 50% of U.S. garment factories are sweatshops. Many sweatshops are run in this country's apparel centers: California, New York, Dallas, Miami and Atlanta.

Source:Department of Labor

Where are most sweatshops?

There are probably sweatshops in every country in the world - anywhere where there is a pool of desperate, exploitable workers. Logically, the poorer a country is the more exploitable its people are. Labor violations are, therefore, especially widespread in third world countries. Nike has been criticized for unethical labor practices in its Chinese, Vietnamese and Indonesian shoe factories, and Haitian garment factories. Non-profit groups have documented the labor violations of retailers like Philips-Van Heusen and the Gap in factories throughout Latin America.

As mentioned above, however, developing countries are not the only ones with sweatshops. Guess? Clothing Corporation, for example, has been cited numerous times by the Department of Labor for the use of contract sweatshops in California.

Who is a typical sweatshop worker?

In the garment industry, the typical sweatshop worker is a woman (90% of all sweatshop workers are women). She is young and, often, missing the chance for an education because she must work long hours to support a family. In America, she is often a recent or undocumented immigrant. She is almost always non-union and usually unaware that, even if she is in this country illegally, she still has rights as a worker.

Which companies are operating sweatshops?

Many of the companies directly running sweatshops are small and don't have much name recognition. However, virtually every retailer in the U.S. has ties to sweatshops. The U.S. is the biggest market for the garment industry and almost all the garment sales in this country are controlled by 5 corporations: Wal-Mart, JC Penney, Sears, The May Company (owns and operates Lord & Taylor, Hecht1s, Filene1s and others) and Federated Department Stores (owns and operates Bloomingdale1s, Macy1s, Burdine1s, Stern1s and others).

Several industry leaders have been cited for labor abuses by the Department of Labor. Of these Guess? Clothing Co. is one of the worst offenders - Guess? was suspended indefinitely from the Department of Labor's list of "good guys" because their contractors were cited for so many sweatshop violations.

Other companies contract out their production to overseas manufacturers whose labor rights violations have been exposed by U.S. and international human rights groups. These include Nike, Disney, Wal-Mart, Reebok, Phillips- Van Heusen, the Gap, Liz Claiborne and Ralph Lauren.

Don't these company officials feel guilty for using sweatshops?

Large corporations almost always use contract manufacturing firms to produce their goods. In this way, corporations separate themselves from the production of their own goods and try to claim that the working conditions under which their goods are produced are not their responsibility.

In fact, it is the corporations that dictate the conditions of their workers. Corporations squeeze their contractors into paying sub-minimum wages. Large retailers and retail chains pressure contract manufacturers by refusing to pay more that a rock-bottom price for manufacturing orders. They also demand that their manufacturing contractors guarantee them a profit by buying back unsold merchandise at the end of each season. Manufacturers deal with this financial squeeze not by cutting their own profits, but by cutting workers' wages and benefits, and by compromising workers1 physical safety.

Many corporations also refuse to contract to union shops. So, even if a contractor does want to pay their workers a reasonable wage and allow them their freedom of association, he/she will probably be run out of business. In the end, it is the workers who pay for corporate greed.

How do American companies get away with running sweatshops?

Unfortunately the Department of Labor does not have enough personnel to inspect every workplace for labor violations. The Department of Labor only requires companies to have an internal monitoring policy, as opposed to an external monitoring policy where site inspections and evaluations would be unannounced and conducted by impartial parties. With internal monitoring there is no way to know whether companies are telling the truth about the conditions in their own factories. Many companies, like Nike, pay private accounting firms to come into their factories and assess the working conditions as "independent" monitors.

Even when companies are caught violating workers' rights, the punishment is often nominal. Fines that may seem hefty to us are insignificant to companies reaping multi-million dollar profits.

Why do foreign governments let foreign companies come into their country and exploit their people?

The truth is, business and government are a lot more connected to each other than most people think. Our economy rewards the highest bidder among consumers and the lowest bidder among producers. Foreign governments, desperate for economic gain, often deliberately set their national minimum wage below what it would actually take a worker to support herself and her family. The citizens of a country starve and suffer while the elite class and corrupt government officials reap the benefits of globalization.

What is the U.S. government doing about sweatshops?

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 officially prohibits sweatshops. However, because of understaffing at the Department of Labor and corporations' strategies for distancing themselves from the production of their goods by contracting production out to many different manufacturers, enforcement is lax. Earlier this year Stop Sweatshops Bills were introduced in Congress that would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to hold companies responsible for the labor violations of their contractors.

President Clinton has also created an Apparel Industry Task Force of both labor rights and corporate interests to address the issue of sweatshops. The Task Force's first resolution, however, failed to address many important issues for workers. The Task Force does not require member-corporations to pay their workers a living wage, instead requiring only the, often substandard, minimum wage set by the government of a corporation's host country. The resolution allows member-corporations to force their workers to labor as many as 60 hours a week during regular business circumstances, and even more under vaguely defined "extraordinary" business circumstances. The Task Force is due to release its second report this November. However, reports indicate that corporate interests continue to be unyielding to the requests of human and workers' rights groups.

Can the U.S. government enforce U.S. labor laws on U.S. companies operating abroad?

No, it can't. This is precisely the reason that many U.S. companies move their production operations overseas. Multi-national corporations actively seek out markets where wages are low, unions are outlawed and desperate people will work for almost any price. Nike, for example, first moved production out of the U.S. to Taiwan and South Korea when American workers organized to demand a reasonable wage. Then, when democracy took hold in Taiwan and South Korea, Nike moved production again, this time to China, Indonesia and Vietnam, all countries run by dictatorial military regimes that violently suppress workers' rights.

What are relations like between the U.S. government and the governments of countries where U.S. businesses are operating sweatshops?

Ironically, the U.S. gives humanitarian and other types of aid to countries whose poverty is, in part, a result of unscrupulous U.S. business operations. The U.S. government gives lip-service to workers' and human rights while promoting the business climates most conducive to sweatshops, namely, through NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and the U.S.'s "laissez-faire" attitude towards the growing markets in East and Southeast Asia.

What is the alternative to a sweatshop?

Corporations set up sweatshops in the name of "competition". In reality these corporations are not facing profit loses or bankruptcy, just too little profit! During this century, workers real wages have gone down while CEO's salaries have skyrocketed. In 1965 the average CEO made 44 times the average factory worker. Today, the average CEO makes 212 times the salary of the average worker.


Corporations have skewed priorities. Many are putting expenses like CEO salaries and advertising costs before the well-being of their workers. For example, a Haitian worker sewing children's pajamas for Disney would have to toil full-time for 14.5 years to earn what Michael Eisner makes in one hour! Here's another staggering statistic: Nike could pay all its individual workers enough to feed and clothe themselves and their families if it would just devote 1% of its advertising budget to workers' salaries each year! Corporations falsely claim that they are victims of the global economy when, in fact, corporations help create and maintain this system.

Women make up 90 percent of sweatshop laborers. The majority of these women are between the ages of 15 and 22. Companies that use sweatshop labor to increase their own profit margins are taking advantage of predominantly young women.

Injustices perpetrated by factories that employ the use of sweatshop labor are numerous. Women are paid as little as six cents an hour and work ten to twelve hour shifts. In many instances overtime is mandatory. In some cases, women are allowed only two drinks of water and one bathroom break per shift. Sexual harassment, corporal punishment, and verbal abuse are all means used by supervisors to instill fear and keep employees in line.

Companies such as Nike, Guess?, and Disney should not be allowed to continue to increase their profit margins, using the sweat of hard working women. These women deserve to be paid a living wage, to be given a safe working environment, and the right to be free of unwanted sexual harassment.