Part of the This Stuff Matters campaign from ethicTrade
What is a sweatshop?
A sweatshop is a term with strong negative connotations for a place of production, usually a factory, where employees work for very low wages and for very long hours. Minimum wage laws are usually ignored and child labour often utilised.
Aren’t sweatshops a thing of the past?
Unfortunately not. Whilst there was a sharp decline in sweatshops during the 1950s, they are now more prevalent than ever and are still on the increase. This is largely because many companies – and not just the large multi-nationals – are manufacturing their products in less economically developed countries where they can ‘employ’ very cheap labour with minimal fear of reprisals. By lowering manufacturing costs they are able to market their end-products to consumers at more competitive retail prices whilst simultaneously increasing their profit margins.
Who are the workers?
According to feminist.org, 90% of people who work in sweatshops are women, and most of these are between the ages of 15 and 22. Their wages of the equivalent of 7-25 pence per hour are nowhere near enough to meet the cost of living. There has been a lot of evidence that suggests women in sweatshops are often subjected to sexual harassment and corporal punishment by their male bosses. Very often they are not even allowed to take toilet breaks few breaks during the 10, 12 or even 14 hour shift. Unpaid overtime, unsafe working conditions, no annual holiday and no maternity leave completes the picture.
Why do they work there?
Frequently these women have been tempted in to signing working contracts with the company in return for promises of a better life in a foreign country like the USA. They are even so convinced that working for this company will improve their lives that they pay the company initial fees to be allowed to work for them! Because they earn so little money it can often take years of working for zero pay to settle this debt with the company.
What must we do?
Buy fair trade. Fair trade products are not limited to just coffee and bananas, though obviously these are good too. With a tiny bit of effort, you can buy your clothing, toys, gifts and home furnishings all from companies that have proven themselves to have an ethical supply chain. This will leave you free to boycott those companies that still use sweatshop production.
Some companies strongly suspected to still use sweatshops to produce some goods:
Mark’s & Spencer’s
The list goes on, but these should give you some idea of how prevalent the issue is. There have been several high-profile investigations and reports in recent years, exposing these companies’ unfair working practices, but real change will only happen when we all stand up and say we will only buy products that have been made by workers who are paid fairly and treated fairly.