January 1, 1998

Sweatshop Watch

Many people would be surprised to learn that sweatshops (defined by Sweatshop Watch as "a workplace where workers are subject to extreme exploitation, including the absence of a living wage or benefits, poor working conditions and arbitrary discipline.") exist in the US. In fact,

sweatshops are commonplace in the U.S. garment industry and are spreading rapidly throughout developing countries. In the U.S., garment workers typically toil 60 hours a week in front of their machines, often without minimum wage or overtime pay. In fact, the Department of Labor estimates that more than half of the country's 22,000 sewing shops violate minimum wage and overtime laws. Many of these workers labor in dangerous conditions including blocked fire exits, unsanitary bathrooms, and poor ventilation. Government surveys reveal that 75% of U.S. garment shops violate safety and health laws. In addition, workers commonly face verbal and physical abuse and are intimidated from speaking out, fearing job loss or deportation.

Generally, people who work these types of jobs are women.

Sweatshop Watch is a coalition of labor and community organizations, attorneys, and advocates working together to eliminate such illegal and dangerous conditions in the workplace. Sweatshop Watch focuses primarily but not exclusively on the conditions of garment workers in California. In El Monte, California, a slave sweatshop was discovered in 1995, where Thai workers were forced to work for $1.60 per hour in virtual slavery. Sweatshop Watch and its affiliates' members "helped workers recover unpaid wages, overtime compensation and damages for civil rights violations, false imprisonment and assault. Sweatshop Watch then launched its first campaign, the Retailer Accountability Campaign, against prominent retailers who received and sold clothes sewn in the El Monte slave sweatshop. The campaign asked these retailers to adopt a Code of Conduct honoring labor, safety and health laws to protect workers. At the same time, Sweatshop Watch began publishing a newsletter to educate the growing number of consumers who are concerned about sweatshops."

Though things are bad in California, they are even worse overseas. Sweatshop Watch publishes a chart of Average Hourly Wages for Garment Workers, which ranges from a healthy $23.19 in Germany to ten cents in Burma and Bangladesh.

As part of their work to improve conditions in the US and elsewhere, Sweatshop Watch publishes a quarterly newsletter, coordinates a traveling educational photo exhibit on garment workers and a Retailer Accountability Campaign, and is setting up an information clearinghouse. They have also succeeded in having legislation passed in San Francisco and Ohio, and are sponsoring a "No Sweat" Purchasing Policy Resolution to be voted upon this month at the U.S Conference of Mayors.

The website itself is comprehensive and simply designed. It's a utilitarian site with no fancy graphics, but it contains a wealth of information on sweatshops and related topics. The Newsletter is online, as is information on how you can get involved. They also offer a 1998 Calendar for purchase.

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