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 world, including in the U.S., they are especially prevalent in the global South where many of the goods we purchase are produced. There, 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 people who produce the goods we buy and use, those in the U.S. and around the world.
What is a Sweatshop?
A sweatshop is a business, often a factory or production facility, where local laws governing the workplace are broken and employees are exploited by their employer. The employee abuse may be related to very low wages, unsafe working conditions, humiliating or degrading treatment, excessively long hours of work, or other factors.
Sweatshops are pervasive in the global economy. They exist in most, if not all, countries including the U.S. They produce products used and sold by most multinational firms. In today’s world, we must assume a multinational firm uses sweatshops unless it has been certified to be sweat free by an independent third party. Sweatshop conditions harm workers’ bodies, minds, and spirits. As people of faith, we are called to love our neighbors, especially those on the margins of society. We are called to end sweatshop abuses.
Globally, there are too few jobs. But the choice between no job and a sweatshop job is a false choice. What workers need and want are good jobs. Multinational corporations and their suppliers need to know that sweatshops are not permissible. Firms must end these abuses and international norms must prohibit practices that exploit workers.
The world has changed dramatically in the past 20 to 30 years. The global assembly line is a reality. International laws and treaties have been put in place to protect corporate investments, profits, and patents. But protections for workers (and the environment) are lagging far behind. One indication of this gap is the prevalence of sweatshops.
We Can End Sweatshops
Consumers and concerned global citizens can end sweatshops. We can start by examining our individual choices to be sure they promote justice for workers. We can buy sweat-free apparel and fairly-traded coffee, tea, and chocolate. If we have investments, we can support socially responsible firms. Because trade unions are an important force for worker justice, we need to support the right of workers, in this country and around the world, to form or join a union. And we must lobby Congress to modify existing treaties governing trade and investment so they uphold international labor standards.
Much has changed in the global economy, but much has stayed the same. Workers still need a living wage, safe working conditions, and dignity on the job. As consumers and global citizens, we have power to bring the needed changes. Another world is possible!
Reports and articles about sweatshops
Bringing Labor Rights to Bangladesh by Robert J. S. Ross, The American Prospect, Summer, 2015. A follow up on what has been happening to ensure labor rights in Bangladesh.
Battling for a Safer Bangladesh by Steven Greenhouse and Elizabeth A. Harris, New York Times, April 21, 2014,
U.S. retailers decline to aid factory victims in Bangladesh by Steven Greenhouse, New York Times, Nov. 23, 2013.
Bangladesh takes steps to raise $38-a-month minimum wage by Jim Yardley, New York Times, Nov. 5, 2013.
Analysts: U.S. Retail Safety Plan For Bangladesh Factories Has No Teeth by Neal Ungerleider, Fast Company, July 16, 2013.
U.S. Retailers Offer Plan for Safety at Factories by Steven Greenhouse and Stephanie Clifford, New York Times, July 10, 2013. Unlike European retailers, U.S. firms make no commitment to pay for needed upgrades. Without additional funds, Bangladeshi firms are limited in what they can do.
U.S. Retailers Announce New Factory Safety Plan by Steven Greenhouse, New York Times, May 30, 2013. Numerous European firms have signed onto a binding plan with rigorous independent inspections of Bangladeshi factories and have committed to help finance improvements for fire and building safety. But U.S. firms won’t sign the binding agreement.
Big Retailers Quit Stalling on Factory Safety by Vikas Bajaj, New York Times, May 13, 2013.
Bangladesh Needs Strong Unions by Fazle Hasan Abed, New York Times, April 29, 2013. Workers must be allowed to form unions; Western buyers, instead of squeezing factory owners on price, should finance better safety standards.
Clothed in Misery by M. T. Anderson, New York Times, April 29, 2013. Deaths in garment factories don’t have to happen; prevention would add a minimal amount to the cost of each item of clothing produced.
Western Firms Feel Pressure as Toll Rises in Bangladesh by Julfikar Ali Manik, Steven Greenhouse and Jim Yardley, New York Times, April 25, 2013. Multinational firms and the Bangladeshi government are blamed for disaster.
The International Labor Rights Fund calls on retailers to join the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement to prevent future factory disasters in Bangladesh.
Building Collapse in Bangladesh Leaves Scores Dead by Julfikar Ali Manik and Jim Yardley, New York Times, April 24, 2013.
Death Toll Hits 194 in Bangladeshi Building Collapse by Julfikar Ali Manik and Jim Yardley, New York Times, April 25, 2013 Factory collapse kills workers.
Export Powerhouse Feels Pangs of Labor Strife by Jim Yardley, New York Times, August 23, 2012. In Bangladesh where wages are the lowest in the world, efforts by workers to raise their wages are met by repression.
Fighting for Bangladesh Labor, and Ending Up in Pauper’s Grave by Jim Yardley, New York Times, September 9, 2012. Bangladeshi labor leader tortured and killed
More than 300 killed in Pakistani factory fires by Zia Ur-Rehman, Declan Walsh, Salman Massod; New York Times, September 13, 2012. Lax regulations blamed as fires kill hundreds in Pakistan.
Inspectors certified Pakistani factory as safe before disaster by Declan Walsh and Steen Greenhouse,New York Times, September 20, 2012. The questionable rating was made by a nonprofit monitoring group that obtains much of its funding from corporations.
Is the Perfect Factory Possible? by Peter Dreier, The Nation, November 7, 2011.
In Chinese Factories, Lost Fingers and Low Pay by David Barboza, New York Times, January 5, 2008.