Where Did Sweatshops Come From?
Sweatshops, as we know them today, originated during the Industrial Revolution in places like London and New York. Even back then, sweatshops were already known to have poor working conditions, with factories being overcrowded, workers being paid extremely low wages, and children as young as 14 being put to work.
And on top of all that, sweatshops were already known to be dangerous and prone to disaster. One of the most infamous examples of the dangers of sweatshops is the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York. Almost 150 people died that day, but it wasn’t just the fires that killed people – since doors were locked during the workday to keep workers from leaving, some had to jump out the windows to escape the fire, often dying in the process.
The fire was a real tragedy, but it did bring about a lot of progressive reforms in the US, leading to labour regulation laws, minimum wage laws, and safety codes. But while these reforms did help improve working conditions for garment workers in developed countries like the US and the UK, sweatshops didn’t disappear entirely. Sweatshops are still very alive in modern developing countries.
Sweatshops Today: The Facts And Statistics
While sweatshops aren’t as prevalent in developed countries today, the economies of developing countries are largely dependent on them. Bangladesh, in particular, relies heavily on sweatshops as 80-90% of their exports are from the textile industry. Yet, despite being a $USD 29-billion ($AUD 41-billion) industry, garment workers in Bangladesh are only paid $USD 0.35 ($AUD 0.50) an hour. Adding to that are unsafe working conditions that have led to multiple casualties.
Issues related to sweatshops don’t stop at dangerous workplaces and low wages either. A lot of garment workers are forced to work 14-16 hour workdays either because they need to meet unrealistic daily quotas or because they need the extra money to cover their daily expenses as minimum wage usually isn’t enough. In addition to that, workers are at risk of injury and disease, especially because of practices like “sandblasting” that can lead to respiratory illnesses.
And on top of all of that, many garment workers, particularly the women that make up 75% of the workforce, are subjected to physical and sexual abuse at the workplace!
A lot of things have changed since the industrial revolution, but unfortunately, sweatshops seem to have mostly stayed the same.
Fashion Brands That Use Sweatshops
With all that being said, you might think that sweatshops are only used by the seediest of fashion brands, but that just isn’t the case. Big sportswear brands like Nike and Adidas are infamous for using sweatshops all over Asia. And while both companies have made moves to improve the working conditions in their factories, recent reports have shown that their garment workers still aren’t being paid living wages.
In addition to that, big fast fashion brands are also guilty of relying on sweatshops that mistreat their workers. In India and Sri Lanka, women in factories connected to H&M regularly face physical and sexual abuse for not meeting daily targets and for rejecting advances from male co-workers. Also, Uniqlo workers in China are paid wages so low that many are forced to work overtime just so they can pay for daily necessities.
And even in the face of poor working conditions like those, workers can’t even speak out. Workers from a Zara factory in Istanbul have even resorted to stitching hidden messages into clothes, hoping that consumers find them and learn that they’re not being paid for their work.
Considering how much money these brands make every year, it’s a bit surprising how their businesses are still run in this way.
What Can Be Done About Sweatshops?
As we said earlier, the first step to dealing with the sweatshop issue is to be aware of the problem, so by this point in the article, you’ve already done something important! Don’t believe us? Well, we’re not the only ones that see the importance of being informed – movements like the Fashion Revolution work tirelessly to raise awareness of the poor working conditions in these sweatshops with Twitter campaigns like #whomadeyourclothes and #imadeyourclothes alongside events like Fashion Revolution Week.
Besides being more aware, you can also tackle the sweatshop issue by making more informed shopping choices. For example, you can choose to only buy clothes that you know are ethically-sourced or that have been certified by accreditation bodies like Ethical Clothing Australia. You can also choose to buy fewer clothes and to hold on to your older ones to show big fashion brands that there’s no need to produce so much clothing each year.
At first, our suggestions can seem a little bit insignificant in the face of the issue, but it’s demand for these products that first brought about sweatshops. Who knows what might happen if people made more informed choices and the market demand changes? There’s only one way to find out!
Garment workers all around the world face poor living conditions due to sweatshops. But the more people know about the problem, the closer we can all get to a world where garment workers are treated well and sweatshops are finally things of the past.