By National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS)
Over a hundred years ago the term "sweating system" was used to describe how big garment manufacturers contracted work out to smaller firms employing low-wage immigrant workers. These small garment contractors "sweated" as much labor as possible out of workers, forcing them to work long hours at starvation wages in unsanitary and unsafe factories. To fight these sweatshop conditions millions of workers around the country fought for an eight-hour day.
Today we are witnessing a widespread return to 19th-century conditions. The return of sweatshop conditions is hitting youth, women, people of color, and immigrant communities the hardest. Violations of basic labor laws — governing minimum wage, child labor, overtime, safety and health — are spreading. More broadly, firms in all sorts of industries are relying on subcontracting networks similar to the "sweating system" in garment. Today's sweating systems span the globe. Workers in full-time positions with pensions and benefits are being downsized and replaced by contract labor. Downsizing means that fewer workers have to do more work. The rise in lower-paying temp, contract, and part-time jobs means more people are trying to hold down more than one job. Overwork in some communities means lack of work in others, as corporations hire less full-time employees. The U.S. economy is coming to look like one big sweatshop.
To put an end to the spread of sweatshop conditions like inhumanly long work hours, we need to build a new labor movement aimed at transforming the sweatshop system.
Sweatshop exploitation is not an overseas problem. The worst kinds of working conditions — indentured servitude and slavery — exist right here in the United States. For example, in 1994, 72 Thai slaves were found working 22 hours a day under threats of physical violence inside a barbed-wire compound in El Monte, CA. Workers in many industries (auto, toys, electronic, even data processing and services) are caught up in new global sweating systems. Long hours are spreading across the country, regardless of industry, community, trade, income, or skill level. Repetitive motion injuries are on the rise.
To justify brutal conditions and low wages corporations and employers claim that sweatshop workers are grateful to have jobs. Some argue that sweatshop conditions are acceptable in immigrant cultures. Corporations also claim that downsizing, subcontracting, contingent labor, and longer hours are necessary for their survival. In reality, people only work in sweatshops when they have no alternative. Many workers are organizing against sweatshop conditions. In 1993 immigrant workers led a successful seven-month community campaign against sweatshop conditions at Silver Palace, one of the largest and most profitable restaurants in New York's Chinatown. In many other communities across the country people are laying groundwork for a new labor movement aimed at transforming the sweatshop system.
What is an "illegal" human being? "Illegal" workers are a bonanza for sweatshop bosses. These employers pretend to do undocumented immigrants a favor by hiring them and then forcing them to work inhumanly long hours. Legislation that makes it illegal for undocumented immigrants to work, like the employers' sanctions provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), simply expands the pool of workers trapped in sweatshops and makes it harder for them to organize. This cheap labor pool drives down the working and living standards of other workers.
The real cause of the spread of sweatshop conditions and sweating structures is the employers' drive to cut labor costs so that they can maintain or raise their profits. Anti-immigrant hysteria simply divides working people and deflects our attention from the systemic roots of the problem. Saying that undocumented workers cause sweatshops is like saying that slaves cause slavery.
Health and safety violations, fire hazards, child labor, 70-100 hour work weeks with no overtime pay, subminimum wages — all of these sweatshop conditions are illegal and yet they are spreading. The Secretary of Labor's main response to the problem has been to "ask" employers to police themselves. The government continues cutting budgets for labor enforcement agencies to the bone. In addition, legislation like the employers' sanctions provision of IRCA and other anti-immigrant measures are forcing more immigrants to seek employment in illegal sweatshops because they have no alternative. Ending the spread of sweatshop conditions and protecting the bottom-line human rights of working people are not leading priorities for politicians or the government.
To be continued
NMASS P.O. Box 130293, New York, NY 10013-0995 office: 30 Third Avenue, Brooklyn (between Atlantic and State) tel: 718-625-9091 — fax: 718-625-8950 — email: email@example.com. Copyright NMASS All RIghts Reserved.