How do we eliminate sweatshop labor?

I’m sure the large majority of you have heard about the use of overseas sweatshop labor by various companies. However, I have never heard of anybody proposing an actual solution to the problem. Complaining about it won’t make it go away, and we can’t simply invoke U.S. labor law because the sweatshops aren’t located in the U.S.

So what do we do? Remember, we’re dealing with companies run by people who have virtually no morals, otherwise the sweatshops wouldn’t be there in the first place.

It is highly improbable that organizing a boycott would have any effect. The high levels of political apathy in this country would make it extremely difficult to accomplish anything.

I suppose the government could tell them, “You can do what you want over there, but if you want to bring the product into the U.S., you’re going to have to follow these rules.”

Hey man, you spelt sweetshop wrong!

Yes, that would be a good idea, wouldn’t it? And that’s exactly what I’m going to be screaming about in Quebec City in April, and what I was screaming about in Montreal in November and Washington last April, and what they were screaming about in Seattle the November before that. One of the things, anyway.

It’s been decided by various powerful persons that any attempt by a democratic government to decide what can be brought into its country, based on standards of production, social effects, or environmental health, is an “unfair restriction on trade”. (By way of contrast, those who use child labour and destroy the environment are “upstanding corporate citizens.”)

Let me preface my remarks by noting I am neither an unrestrained libertarian nor a slavering at the mouth neo-liberal who thinks what’s good for the corp is good for mankind. However, I do work in the Third World and I don’t have a sense that anti-globalization protestors have a realistic sense of what they are protesting.

But perhaps you folks need to get a grip on the economic realities, needs and restraints in the third world. It’s very easy to scream about ‘sweatshops’ and ‘environmental’ standards (mind you I am for them) when you’re all comfortable at home.

Now, what is the reality in, shall we say, Indonesia? Some definitions of the terrain might help get realistic answers.

(a) What is a “sweat shop” – is it a factory which pays less than the going wage, locally speaking? Is it a factory which pays less than the going wage in the developed world?

(b) What other choices are available to the population? Other jobs? Or nothing? Please do try to base this on real data and not assumptions. The World Bank has a large amount of data available on line, you may also find other data with the IMF.

© What are the conditions available generally, what expenses for the labor conditions versus the expenses of unemployment and perhaps starvation. What menu of choices do people actually face, what may represent imporvements or declines in standards of living?

(d) How do you plan to generate economic growth to cover population growth?

(e) Do address the issue of protection, both 3rd and 1st World and the degree to which both protect established interests.

Starting with definitions and addressing constraints will help put this discussion on a more useful track.

Well, the short answer to the OP is, “Refuse to buy the products and the sweatshops will all go away.”

Can you live without those cheap Target jeans? And Kohl’s usually has the best prices on fairly nice girls’ dressy dresses…

And if we all did boycott Kohl’s and Target, and succeeded in shutting down these two factories, that means the folks who work there will be unemployed. AFAIK, Nicaragua has no state welfare system to provide unemployment compensation. What are these people supposed to do? Go back to subsistence farming?

And, I’m sorry, but since when is it Uncle Sam’s business to make sure that the neighbors are all good, clean, honest, God-fearing people who don’t mistreat their employees? Sure, if the neighbors are too noisy, we have the right to protest, but if the guy next door wants to spend his time assembling products at his kitchen table, instead of going out and getting a regular job, why is that our problem?

Especially if he’s willing to spend hours and hours assembling products that we REALLY NEED, like electronic components for our radar detectors and laptop computers, not to mention state-of-the-art athletic shoes. :rolleyes:

Ah. I realized I should clarify that I am speaking metaphorically, when I refer to the guy sitting at his kitchen table.

I am not referring to the individual worker, who probably doesn’t have the option of going out and getting a “real job”. I was thinking of the various national governments involved. They are, at least most of them, nominally democratic, and it seems to me that if the governments really resented being exploited by American consumers, they could go out and do something about revamping their national economies.

However, the Mil Colores sweatshops are generating Gross National Product for Nicaragua, and I doubt whether the Nicaraguan government is anxious to shut them down any time soon, or even to tamper with them. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And the offended sentiments of American liberals probably don’t cut much ice in Managua. Vote with your pocketbook, people. That’s what they’ll understand.

Well, how does one find out what products are made in sweatshops? Look at the Kathie Lee fiasco? She “claimed” she didn’t know, and corrected it…then, didn’t they find out that it hadn’t stopped or something like that?

Says you.
God forbid poor people should be employed at the going wage for their locality. Only evil people would offer such jobs.
Unless there is slavery involved I don’t think the developed world has any business dictating what someone else’s wage should be. If you’re so offended, why not get together the capital to start a factory in a third world country and pay people high wages and give them good working conditions? I’m sure they’d appreciate it.
You might not like sweatshops, (whatever that means, one man’s sweatshop is another’s job) but that doesn’t change economic reality.

I worked for many years at below minimum wage and those were some of the best years of my life. Money isn’t everything, even in the developed countries. Sometimes having a low paying job is better than the alternative.

But the fact there is no alternative for these people doesn’t make it right?
You know, it was only 100 years ago that the US had such sweatshops!

There is an interesting book entitled “Mexican Lives,” by Judith Hellman. One section is a lenthy interview with a woman who works in one of the maquiladoras along the US border. Quite frankly, these people know they are getting ripped off and abused, but there is no other choice if they want to eat. Large corporations are indeed exploiting these people.

However, it is fair to say that $.50 an hour goes MUCH further in many of these countries than it does in the US. Also, if the sweatshops were shut down using the “if it is imported it was made using our fair labor standards” approach, what would be the incentive for companies moving production to these areas? How would shutting down these factories help people earn more money? The solutions must come from within each nation itself.

One good idea: eliminate or write off the third world debt.

No, no, you don’t understand! Only individuals have to abide by moral and ethical standards. Corporations can do whatever they please because it’s the “free market.”


Most sweatshops would disappear overnight if somebody could invent a way of automating the clothing-manufacturing process.

Could somebody please define sweatshop for us? Or at least give us some guidelines for the use of this thread.
Generally I don’t see it as exploitation, as long as certain standards are met.

Exposing the workers to dangerous conditions with no safety precautions is one. Working them 70+ hours a week is another. Hiring kids under 14. Not paying them at all.
You can’t eally make to many general sweeping rules though. Especially without taking into consideration the conditions that already exist and the cultural traditions of a country.
I guess a big question that needs to be answered, is whether countries are generally improved or not after a long term “sweatshop” type industry has thirved there. This has been going on for years, does anybody have any success or horro stories from those countries that have hosted signifigant sweatshop factories for any length of time?

A hundred years ago? In fiscal year 2000 (Oct 99-Sep 00) the Department of Labor found 217 violations of Fair Labor Standards Act in the garment industry alone. $3,337,498 in back wages were recovered and $402,968 in civil penalties were assessed for repeat violations. More info (including international information) is at DOL’s No Sweat page.
As for why the overseas ones are hard to shut down, first they’re often hard to find. Much of the work is piecework, which can be done almost anywhere. Bust one place, they move. Second, the governments of developing nations have a lot of issues to deal with and often just don’t have the resources to track down sweatshops, or the authorities are simply bribed.

Take this example as apocryphal because I’m not sure of my recollection, but there was an attempt to shut down sweatshops altogether in Nepal (I think) a few years ago and it was claimed that all of the children who lost their jobs were forced to become prostitutes. They were not, it was simply the claim of the sweatshop owners, but it caused enough of a public outcry to stop the enforcement. There is a grain of truth, though, in that child labor doesn’t just come out of nowhere…those children have jobs for a reason. Prostitution is indeed something many would turn to if their sweatshop was closed up. In the long run of course, it’s better for the children and for the overall economy to educate the children. It becomes a vicious circle; poorly educated people…shortage of skilled labor…poorer conditions…children go to work…poorly educated people etc.

There is a lot of work and a lot of effort put out to fight sweatshops and child labor. The International Labour Organization ( has a lot of information and resources.

I know there are still bad conditions here. I just meant that 100 years ago-it was still LEGAL.

I think you run into a lot of problems when you try to impose first world morality into the third world. You can blame corporations for taking advantage of poverty to secure cheap labour, but they still have to provide “incentive”, so it is clear that the impact is positive for the worker. We should respect the third world countries sovereignty, and not impose our morality on them by boycots etc. which ignore the right to work . That is not to say that conditions of slavery should not be opposed. What the hell are we doing trading with China! Here we are purchasing products from forced labour.

North Americans shouldn’t get to hoighty-toighty. Plenty of us work in jobs where the conditions are dirty,sweaty, uncomfortable, unsafe and subject to long term negative impact despite regulation. There doesn’t seem to be any economically feasible alternative for these jobs which need to be done so we all can live the North American dream.

My advisor told us about the time he was waiting at an airport after spending some time doing research somewhere in Central America (I don’t remember which country it was), and he was commenting to some guy how shocking and horrible the poverty was, and how horrible he felt about it.
The guy said, “Well, that’s stupid. See, there’s a reason for it: they’re poor, so we can be rich. Someone has to be poor, and it’s better for them, not us. They live in poverty so we can be comfortable.” My professor then went on to say how disgusted THAT statement made him.

Implicit in the idea that third world workers are exploited is the idea that they would be better off without these sweatshop jobs. Or that somehow these corporations impoverished people and then forced them to work. But the truth is that these countries were desparately poor before the factories came in. That has been the norm all over the world for thousands of years: bone-grinding poverty.

It took generations of development and struggle for western countries to get where they are today. You can’t just jump from subsistence farming to software development, you first have to have schools, infrastructure, roads, clean water, public health, the rule of law, government by the consent of the governed, etc etc, all the thousands of things that we take for granted without realizing exactly how difficult it is to make the whole thing work.

Poverty is the default, it is wealth that requires special explanations.

OP: I’m sure the large majority of you have heard about the use of overseas sweatshop labor by various companies. However, I have never heard of anybody proposing an actual solution to the problem.

Maybe you need to get out more, RoboDude. There are lots of people proposing ways to solve the problem, or at least to commence working out a solution. For example, the recently-founded Workers Rights Consortium, developed by students, university administrators, and international human rights and labor groups, attempts to clean up the small segment of the garment industry devoted to university and college insignia clothing by instituting and verifying compliance with Codes of Conduct on the part of the manufacturers who make the clothing.

The WRC rules don’t require universities to certify or police factories themselves; they stress working with local labor and workers’ rights organizations, and emphasize the necessity of permitting collective action on the part of the workers, in compliance with the applicable labor laws of the country. This has the advantage of not requiring US officials or consumers unilaterally to set or enforce standards for fair treatment of workers in other countries; instead, it’s assumed that those workers themselves and the NGOs that support them can make known what treatment they consider fair, and all we have to require is that they be free to act collectively.

As for what a consensus on “fair treatment” might be, here are the Employment Standards that the WRC came up with:

And if manufacturers don’t want to comply with those conditions, fine—they just don’t get to make clothes for the universities that belong to the WRC. I don’t understand grienspace’s assertion that it’s not “economically feasible” for everybody to have decent working conditions (which doesn’t mean that no job will ever be dirty, sweaty, or uncomfortable!). Just because many people make more money by denying decent working conditions to others doesn’t mean it’s necessarily “infeasible” to do otherwise. In fact, most consumers’ willingness to pay something extra for clothes that are produced in decent working conditions seems to indicate that it is feasible.

As for defining a sweatshop, on the most basic level it’s pretty easy: an industry that is not in compliance with the country’s and locality’s own labor and environmental laws is a sweatshop. This includes American garment shops that pay less than minimum wage, and Mexican maquiladoras that violate the Mexican federal labor code by demanding pregnancy tests from female employees. It is also usually taken to include industries in countries where the rights legally guaranteed to workers are less than what most human rights organizations consider minimal (where the legal minimum wage is far less than a subsistence wage, for example, or there is no legally recognized right of workers to organize). And yes Freedom and Lemur, the legal rights of workers are often deliberately downgraded by national governments precisely in order to attract foreign investors with cheap labor, so that’s a strong argument that sweatshops are not in the long run beneficial (except to the paid-off politicians, that is). See [url=“”]this article for further discussion of how Third World restrictions on labor rights to attract foreign capital actually harm their overall economic growth.

And as for not “imposing first world morality on the third world,” grienspace, I’m sorry but I think that’s a b******t argument. We are imposing morality on them anyway by making cheapness of production our only investment criterion: the hypercapitalist morality that nothing matters except profit. So why shouldn’t we be willing to impose a more balanced morality in the same way? It’s not as though we’re going in there with guns and tanks and saying “You people raise your minimum wage and implement a generous parental leave act NOW!” We’re simply saying “If you people don’t comply with what we consider minimum standards for decent working conditions, fine and dandy, but we’re not doing business with you. And we’re not letting our corporations do business with you either, no matter how thirsty they are for the huge profit margins you’re willing to offer them by discarding legal protections for workers.”