By Briana Connors, ILRF intern
To many people, the term “sweatshop” refers to hidden factories in far away third world countries where workers have few rights and are underpaid. What many people don’t realize is that those types of factories also exist right here in the US, often closer to home than we think. The US General Accounting Office defines a sweatshop as “a business that violates more than one federal or state law governing wages and hours, child labor, health or safety, workers’ compensation, or industry registration,” and there are a shocking number of factories that fit that definition here in the US. In 1995 in El Monte, California, 72 Thai workers were found working in a locked apartment building surrounded by barbed wire. They were routinely threatened in order to keep them working, and were paid only 69 cents per hour.
Because of a lack of government enforcement of labor laws and the unwillingness of many corporations and producers to acknowledge factory conditions and make changes, 13 years later we are still encountering the same shocking reports. In July, 2008, while investigating a Korean organized crime ring, police raided a small bungalow in Annandale, Virginia, expecting to find items linked to an untaxed cigarette scam two men had been running. What they found instead was a group of women crowded around industrial sewing machines making counterfeit designer clothing. Police also found crack pipes that they think were used to keep the women working and addicted.
Around the same time last summer, a factory called Jin Shun, located in Queens, New York, was investigated by the Labor Department and inspectors called the situation one of the worst sweatshops they have seen in years. They found that the factory had withheld over 5.3 million dollars in wages from it’s workers. Factory workers interviewed during the investigation reported working 66 hour weeks, six days a week, sewing clothing for companies including Banana Republic, Urban Apparel, Macy’s, Gap, and Victoria’s Secret. Worst of all, employees were given written instructions (in both English and Mandarin, since most workers were Chinese immigrants) on how to respond to Labor Department inquiries. If inspectors asked about how many hours they work, they were told to respond, “Not sure, depends on the workload.” If asked about their hourly wage, they were told to respond, “Not sure, but always over $7.75 depending on the job complexity.” Jin Shun also deceived Labor Department investigators by providing false time cards that documented less hours worked by each employee to avoid paying overtime rates.
Representatives from the brands that were found being produced in the factory all expressed concern about the findings. But as we all know, expressing concern does not pay workers’ wages. What will they really do to remedy this situation and prevent others like it from occurring? Dan Heckle, senior vice president of social responsibility at the Gap said, “We plan to fully cooperate with authorities to ensure the workers are treated fairly.” The company decided to suspend production there until the situation is resolved. It’s a start, but I think it’s simply not enough. Corporations such as Gap have been fending off accusations of labor violations in factories producing its clothing for years. It’s time for Gap and the others mentioned above to start being more proactive about labor rights. It’s not enough to cooperate with authorities after situations have been discovered that have been going on for years. These companies need to take it upon themselves to investigate labor situations in the factories where the clothing is produced, and require full disclosure from all contractors and their factories so that all factories can be properly monitored.
Another constant reminder of the visibility of labor violations is Wal-Mart. Although many people don’t think of Wal-Mart as a sweatshop, I found an interesting article by Ron Moore at the Examiner.com that shows how it could easily fit the label. Mr. Moore pointed out that Wal-Mart can basically drive down wages as much as it’d like, because there will always be people willing to work if others decide to leave. Their theory is that there will always be some one willing to work for less. So basically, Wal-Mart continues to pay workers unbelievably low wages, sometimes less than a living wage, and then leaves the difference to be made up by our social welfare system. Our taxpayer dollars are paying for the services those workers need to survive because Wal-Mart will not.
Before beginning much of my work and research on sweatshops, I used to think sweatshop conditions only existed in hidden factories that few can find and the public can’t see. But over the last few years I’ve found the truth to be very much the opposite. During my visit to Guatemala in 2000 a friend of mine pointed out a sweatshop where several of her close friends and family members worked sewing the seams in jeans. Right there in broad daylight along the side of a busy road, sweatshops were not just visible but well known. Here in the US, while you may not be able to point them out walking down the road, they definitely still exist, and they’re much closer to us than we may think. The sweatshop found in Annandale was not a hidden, nor was it hard to find. It was near a major intersection in a large, well known suburb less than 20 minutes outside of DC.
Stories like these are important reminders for consumers. They’re a reminder that the effects of the choices we make as consumers can be seen right in our own backyards. Sweatshops are not always hidden factories in third world countries, they’re here in the US where we least expect to find them. They’re also a reminder that we can all work to eliminate sweatshops by shopping responsibly and not supporting corporations that violate workers’ rights.