The Global History Of Sweatshops

“Ethical fashion”, “supply chain transparency”, “anti-sweatshop movements” are all buzzwords we see quite frequently in the news today. When Beyonce’s fashion line Ivy Park came under fire for underpaying their (mostly female) sweatshop employers despite creating a brand image which centred on the empowerment of women, many were disillusioned and questioned the integrity of the brand. 

However, this phenomena of ‘woke’ marketing is precisely what makes protesting such practices with our dollar so much harder nowadays. There is a rising trend of brands who try to maintain an image of inclusivity and progressiveness while engaging in the usage of anti-humanitarian sweatshops behind the scenes. Such brands often include those who heavily advertise the empowerment of women, people of colour, and other marginalised groups within society despite reports of unsafe working conditions and workplace abuse in factories where their products are made. 

However, such practices are not just a modern phenomenon. Although the taboo and stigmatisation of the usage of sweatshops has become more prominent in recent years (and thus have given rise to the trend of brands ‘hiding’ under the guise of branding), usage of sweatshops in the garment and textile industry go back nearly two centuries.

Sweatshop in NY
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Photo by Bud Glick


Late 1700s-1800s | The Industrial Revolution: London & Paris

The concept of sweatshops only first emerged during and after the First Industrial Revolution, when for the first time in history, manufacturing methods transitioned drastically from hand production methods to a mass mechanised system. Not surprisingly, the very first textile sweatshops were found in London and other neighbouring British cities, as the Revolution itself began in Great Britain. It quickly spread to other continental European cities such as Paris. There are records that show that during the late 19th and 20th century, most workers in Parisian garment sweatshops were of German, Belgian, Polish, and Russian Jewish descent. Both in London and Paris, these sweatshops would employ mostly impoverished immigrant women and children who had very few job alternatives. This is because the concept of labor unions and child labor laws were still non-existent at the time until the passing of the Factory Acts and the introduction of compulsory schooling in the beginning of the 20th century.

It is still noteworthy that this pattern of exploiting impoverished women and children in factories and sweatshops can still be seen today, nearly two centuries later. Still very much a female-dominated industry, women make up 70 to 80 percent of employment in sweatshops in the Global South. Many of these women have no other source of revenue, yet are underpaid and do not receive compensation for overtime, sick or maternity leaves. Yet, despite these conditions, the garment and textile industry is considered to be one of the more safer and respectable option for those without much to choose from.

Mid 1800s-Early-1900s | The European Diaspora: New York City

With massive waves of European immigrants moving to the United States in the 20th century, New York City became the new hub for cheap textile production, and subsequently, for tenement sweatshops in the Lower East Side. Tenement sweatshops doubled as living quarters and contract shops, and would illegally house up to eight to nine families at a time for a space designed for one. Similarly to the sweatshops that originated in London, sweatshops in New York took advantage of the poor and socially immobile – namely Italian and Eastern European Jewish first-generation immigrant families seeking freedom and economic opportunities. 

With the rise of the popularity of ready-to-wear fashion and department stores, the demand for mass production increased tremendously. This resulted in the phasing out of tenement sweatshops (which could produce limited amounts of hand-sewn pieces of clothing) to small, cramped factories in high-rise lofts. While conditions in these factories were largely considered an improvement from the tenement sweatshops, they were still far from ideal – hundreds of workers, mostly women, would hunch over long rows of sewing machines for hours at a time for very little pay.

In fact, a tragedy that brought to national attention to such horrific workplace conditions was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, where 146 garment workers (123 women and 23 men) died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Although the avoidable tragedy became a starting point for women’s unionisation movements and legislation requiring improved fire safety standards, this tragedy was only one of the many industrial disasters that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of exploited workers in the early 1900s. 

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Photo by Sara Hine


Mid 1900s-Early 2000s | Underground Sweatshops: Los Angeles

Immigrants continued to power the American ready-to-wear fashion industry in postwar America. As the original Italian and Eastern European immigrants began advancing to white collar jobs, sweatshops began to employ Asian immigrants from China, Korea, and throughout Southeast Asia, and Latino workers from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Central and South America. This cycle of disempowerment and exploitation of the least privileged in society is especially relevant in light of recent government crackdowns on undocumented immigrants in the United States. Even before fears of deportation existed, such immigrants had been unable to demand for their rights as workers because of their illegal status. 

Most notably, during post World War II, the influx of Asian immigrants to California made Los Angeles the new epicenter for sweatshops, especially in downtown Los Angeles and Chinatown. Although unionisation and stricter government regulations shut down open sweatshop practices, many smaller factories simply went underground. 

In fact, in 1995, 72 Thai garment workers were found working as modern-day slaves in a hidden sweatshop in suburban Los Angeles. These workers were recruited from impoverished Thai rural villages with the promise of a better future in America, only to be held captive and forced to sew clothing for 17 to 22 hours per day. This discovery served as a wake-up call for many in the industry, and served as a catalyst for global awareness regarding modern-day slavery and human trafficking.  

Mid 2000s-Present Day | Outsourcing of Production to Asia

Unfortunately, sweatshops are still very much a part of the textile industry today. With the rise of labour costs in Western countries, garment sweatshops have been outsourced to various Asian countries, including but not limited to China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Bangladesh. Because these countries lack stringent labour laws and unionisation movements seen in more developed countries, large corporations are able to get away with paying less for more intensive labour.

In fact, the International Labour Organization estimates that “250 million children, 61% in Asia, 32% in Africa, and 7% in Latin America are employed in sweatshops with women making up 85 to 90 percent of sweatshop workers” today. In contrast to the historical concentration of sweatshops in certain cities (like New York City and Los Angeles) in the States, in these developing countries, sweatshops tend to be widely dispersed geographically, making it harder for grassroots human rights organisations to even pinpoint the locations of these sweatshops to extend their aid. As a result, most of their humanitarian work has focused on appealing directly to big name brands who make use of these overseas sweatshops.

Some of the most notable industrial disasters regarding textile sweatshops in the 21st century include the 2012 Pakistan factory fires, the 2012 Dhaka garment factory fire, and the 2013 Dhaka garment factory collapse. Despite some very prominent brands coming under fire for their unethical work practices, the insidious exploitation of garment workers is still a prominent and ongoing issue today.

So where do we go from here?

The answer to this question is not simple. It often seems like we as consumers have very little power over the larger than life corporations that have continuously exploited the most vulnerable factions of the population for profit over the course of history. 

However, there are still things we can do. Demanding for supply chain transparency through our dollar, supporting advocacy groups that are dedicated to the creation of a fairer fashion industry and refusing to close one eye when shopping are only some ways to ensure the abolishment of sweatshops in the long run.

Historically, there is a tendency for us to spring to action only after a tragic industry accident occurs (although this is not just limited to the issue of sweatshops). However, preventative action after these tragedies come too late, and at the cost of countless lives, many of which are women and children. 

“The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future” – Theodeore Roosevelt

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