Sweatshop Stories
Maquiladora workers in Central America
In Central America?s maquiladoras (special export processing zones), forced overtime, very low wages, exposure to dangerous fumes, verbal abuse, public humiliation, and repression of the right to form a union are “standard working conditions.”

LinkNational Labor Committee
Graphic element
Female factory workers in Bangladesh
Some women in Bangladeshi factories labor 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week with just one or two days off a month. During busy times, 20-hour, all-night shifts are mandatory. Workers are slapped, punched, and even hit with sticks. Talking is forbidden and permission is needed to go to the restroom. Severance pay and paid maternity leave, required by Bangladeshi law, are not provided. Wages are far below Bangladesh?s legally required minimum. Any attempt to form a union results in illegal mass firings. All of these abuses violate Bangladesh?s own labor laws. Workers say they could move from lives of misery to ones with some dignity (although still deeply mired in poverty) if they were paid 34 cents an hour. This would mean, for example, that instead of receiving just 1.6 cents for each baseball cap they sewed, they would earn about 3 cents. The caps are sold for $17 in the U.S. An additional cost to consumers of 1.4 cents per cap would not even be noticed but it would make a world of difference to young women in Bangladesh.

LinkNational Labor Committee
Graphic element
Apparel workers in Cambodia
Roughly 2 million apparel workers located in 150 nations around the world make products for American retailers. Some 80% of these are working in conditions that systematically violate local and/or international labor law. Apparel workers in Cambodia are as young as 12 year olds, live in rat-infested dormitories without running water, and endure physical abuse, forced overtime, and seven day workweeks—all for 21 cents an hour.

LinkBehind the Label [PDF]


Click here for a high-resolution printable brochure of this information in pdf format.

Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why do we humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers?. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? —Isaiah 58: 3, 4b, 6

Anyone who goes shopping knows that products sold in the U.S. come from just about every country on the planet. Workers around the world produce goods that are bought by American consumers. Meanwhile, corporations engage in a ceaseless search for ever-cheaper production sites with lower wages and less regulation of the workplace and environment.

Up until 20 or 30 years ago, most things purchased in the U.S. were also made here. U.S. law regulated the workplace and production processes, and protected workers and the environment. While the laws were inadequate and sometimes poorly enforced, they usually prevented severe abuses from occurring.

But things are different now in the era of economic globalization. While sweatshops exist throughout the U.S., they are especially prevalent in the global South where many of the goods we purchase are produced. In the global South, legal and regulatory safeguard are usually quite weak. Even when laws exist, they are often ignored or violated. When penalties are assessed, they are typically very small. Nonetheless, the expansion of trade and investment continues to bring more factories to these countries.

The prophet Isaiah spoke the words he heard from God—words that are as true today as in the past. God calls us to cease oppressing workers, to loose the bonds of injustice, and to break the thongs of the yoke. As we live into God?s reign, we must ensure justice for all God?s children—in the U.S. and around the world—who produce the goods we buy and use.

What is a sweatshop

A sweatshop is a business, located in the U.S. or abroad, where employees are exploited by their employer and local laws governing the workplace are broken. The abuse could be related to very low wages, being forced to work an excessive number of hours, unsafe work conditions, or humiliating or degrading treatment, or harassment.

Labor standards vary across countries. But even the poorest countries usually have labor laws providing for a minimum wage (appropriate to local standards and cost of living), a cap on the number of hours that an employee may work per week, and other protections. Abuses arise because corporate greed overrides fairness. Corporations violate their fundamental responsibility to treat workers with dignity and justice. Global competition among corporations encourages a search to find locations where legal protections for workers are inadequate, authorities fail to monitor and enforce existing law, and inadequate penalties fail to deter violations.

What We Can Do About Sweatshops

Around the world, labor unions continue to be one of the most important ways by which workers can prevent abuse and improve their working conditions. But the right to join a labor union, a fundamental human right under the United Nation?s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is not well protected in trade agreements. In practice, workers who seek to join or form labor unions may be fired or even killed.

Countries also need to enact strong labor standards, enforce these laws, and impose stiff penalties for violations. A set of international labor standards has been adopted by nearly every nation in the world (see International Labor Organization www.ilo.org/). But existing international organizations lack enforcement powers. International trade agreements could be used to enforce these laws but these treaties are largely silent about labor standards. Any protections that are included are typically relegated to “side agreements” that lack the enforcement and oversight mechanisms used in the main body of the treaties. Lacking other good ways to eliminate sweatshops, consumers have begun to use their buying power.

Avoid buying products made in sweatshops

About half of all apparel available for purchase in the U.S. is made in a sweatshop—including the t-shirts that churches and other settings of the UCC often use to promote their events.

There is an alternative to apparel produced in sweatshops. Clothing, including sweat-free t-shirts and other promotional items, are available from a variety of vendors, often at prices similar to those of sweatshop-produced goods. This site provides a list of vendors that are sweat-free. Please let us know your experience with these firms—good or bad (email us at jwm@ucc.org; send a letter to JWM, 700 Prospect Ave, Cleveland OH 44115; or phone us toll-free at 866-822-8224,ext 3700). We will pass it along to others.

Where to get sweat-free apparel

The Coop America Green Pages (www.greenpages.org) and Clean Clothes Connection (www.cleanclothesconnection.org) are two on-line services that allow browsers to find local retailers that sell sweat-free products. There are also firms selling online.

Justice Clothing Company
“Justice Clothing is meant to be a one-stop shop for union-made and sweatshop free apparel.”
Justice Clothing Company
10 Harlow Street
Bangor, ME 04401
Phone:(888) 661-0620 (10 am to 7 pm weekdays and Sundays)
E-mail: info@justiceclothing.com

Maggie’s Clean Clothes
“Raw materials that are grown organically and sustainably by workers who have control of their lives.”
Maggie’s Functional Organics
306 W. Cross Street
Ypsilanti, MI 48197
Phone:(800) 609-8593
Fax: (734) 482-4175
E-mail: maggies@organicclothes.com

No Sweat Apparel
“Our clothing is produced by independent trade union members – the most viable response to globalization is a global labor movement . No Sweat support[s] independent trade unions – the only historically proven solution to sweatshops.”
No Sweat Apparel
14 B Felton Street
Waltham, MA 02453
Phone:(877) 992-7827
E-mail: sales@nosweatapparel.com

Plain’s T-Shirt Co., Inc.
“All of our employees are [union] members and all our fabric is made from 100% USA products and knitted here in Pennsylvania.”
Plain’s T-Shirt Co., Inc.
10 Sarah St.
Plains, PA 18705
Phone:(800) 634-2602
Fax: (570) 822-8224
E-mail: PlainsTs@aol.com

Platinum Sportswear
“Garments made in the USA from fabrics made in the USA.”
Platinum Sportswear
1600 Old Country Road, Plainview, NY 11803
Phone: (800) 839-2929
Fax: (888) 329-6287

Shop Union Made
“Justice Clothing Company”
E-mail: ulstd@unionlabel.org
(These products are only available online)

T.S. Designs
“Our mission is to build a sustainable company that simultaneously looks after the People, the Planet, and Profits.”
T.S. Designs
2053 Willow Springs Lane
Burlington, NC 27215-8854
Phone: (336) 229-6426

Union Jean and Apparel Company
“All products are union-made and American-made.”
The Union Jean & Apparel Co.
2149 Arcanum-Ithaca Rd.
Arcanum, OH 45304
Phone: (877) 692-8009
Fax: (937) 692-8495
E-mail: info@unionjeancompany.com

“Unionwear.com – promote[s] union label wearables to unions, political campaigns, government agencies, and socially responsible organizations.”
(Their products are available only through a nationwide network of distributors—enter your zip code on the web site to find a local retailer.)

Additional resources

Behind the Label www.behindthelabel.org
Campaign for Labor Rights: www.campaignforlaborrights.org
Clean Clothes Campaign www.cleanclothes.org
Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies www.ceres.org
Corpwatch www.corpwatch.org
Fair Trade Federation www.fairtradefederation.org
National Labor Committee www.nlcnet.org
United Students Against Sweatshops www.studentsagainstsweatshops.org
Workers’ Rights Consortium www.workersrights.org

Share what you are doing to end sweatshops

If your church, youth group, social action board, or other group is working to fight sweatshops, please let us know what you?re doing and we will post it on this site. Send a one- to three- paragraph description (including pictures would be terrific) with contact information for someone who might be able to answer questions or provide more information. Send by email to jwm@ucc.org with “our anti-sweatshop work” in the subject line.