by JoAnn Lum
It has become fashionable to talk about sweatshops these days. Unfortunately, the public discussion is dominated by a removed, self-righteous and paternalistic stance. It's those poor women and children in Third World countries being exploited by Nike and Disney. Meanwhile, we turn a blind eye to the sweatshops flourishing right here in the United States. And when those outside of poor communities do notice the sweatshops, too often they think they have nothing to do with them.
But the rising number of sweatshops in L.A. or North Carolina or New York is part of an intensification of work and underemployment that affects almost anyone, regardless of their race, ethnicity, geographic location, trade or class. Those who want to support workers stuck in sweatshops might start considering that the conditions these workers face — longer hours, lower wages and job insecurity — are problems they may be experiencing themselves.
It is true that the Chinese community, along with many other immigrant groups and communities of color in this country, have suffered the brunt of the expansion of what appears to be a global sweatshop. Here in Chinatown, New York, Chinese immigrant women are toiling in garment factories under illegal, inhuman conditions, even though most shops are unionized. Hours are rising, workers are continually threatened with replacement by cheaper labor and work is increasingly contracted out to middlemen for whom labor law does not exist. In garment factories, restaurants in New York, Chinese workers — documented and undocumented — are forced to work 70-100 hours a week without receiving benefits, overtime pay or even minimum wage.
The impact of such harsh working conditions is brutal. Garment workers, for example, report mounting number of job-related injuries. They cannot sleep, they have no time for their children or spouses, and they have no energy for community or civic activities. Children as young as eight work in factories to supplement their families' income.
But what is happening to working conditions beyond these sweatshops? Violations of basic labor laws — governing minimum wage, child labor, overtime, safety and health — are spreading, even as the inspectors who are supposed to enforce them are downsized. And work days are growing longer and longer as people try to make up for their declining wages.
Sweatshop conditions are most obvious in domestic work, agriculture, hotel cleaning and meat processing. But even Hollywood film production crews are protesting their grueling schedules, which often call for 80-hour work weeks and two-week stretches without a break. They are organizing — for a 14-hour workday.
Moreover, firms in all types of industries increasingly rely on subcontracting networks similar to those used by garment makers to evade responsibility for poor conditions. Workers in full-time positions with benefits and pensions are being laid off and replaced with contract labor. Last year, the nation's largest job-finding company for laid off white-collar workers made an agreement with Manpower, Inc., the nation's largest temp company and reputedly the nation's largest employer, to place such workers — managers, engineers, accountants, lawyers and bankers — when it can't place them in permanent, well-paying ones. One estimate puts the total number of contingent workers (including part-time, temporary and contract workers) at 35 million, 28% of the civilian labor force.
These related national trends of overwork and underemployment are creating a desperate climate in our communities where workers must compete relentlessly for jobs, and we are constantly compromising our basic needs. Yes, we need to challenge the global sweatshop and the multinationals mining the globe for cheap labor. But not without starting with ourselves, right here in this country. We need to address the conditions here, rather than frame it as a Third World problem, or marginalize it as an immigrant or low-wage workers' problem. We need to talk about how much work — or the lack of work — is taking over our lives, controlling our time, reducing us to machines, depriving us of time