Sweatshops

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Flexible Specialisation and the persistence of the sweatshop

Sweatshops are known to be a mass of workers mass-producing goods they may never be able to afford themselves. The sweatshop rose to meaning as work moved off the farm and into the city, and employers found a limitless amount of so called labourers to make their products. The low entry costs and high labour intensity linked with the textile industry tended to concentrate sweatshops in clothing production. As industrialization grew, labour markets tightened and workplace regulations strengthened, pushing the sweatshop out of the mainstream of the economy for the time being. The dominance of free trade and globalization in the late 20th century has led to the rebirth of the sweatshop, in developing and developed nations. With approval and a helpful push from national governments, the sweatshop has returned, with conditions frequently as bad as when they first appeared. The US General Accounting Office defines "sweatshop" as an "employer that violates more than one federal or state labour law governing minimum wage and overtime, child labour, industrial homework, occupational safety and health, workers’ compensation, or industry regulation." Even though the US General Accounting Office definition of "sweatshop" provides an accurate, legal interpretation of the term, the sweatshop can occur in many forms. In the words of historian Leon Stein, "The sweatshop is a state of mind as well as a physical fact… The sweatshop, whether in a modern factory building or a dark slum cellar, exists where the employer controls the working conditions and the worker cannot protest." which maintains this sense of prejudice. Sweatshops can be traced back to the textile industry of England, New England, and New York in the 1840s. Prior to 1850, the Massachusetts textile industry employed more homeworkers than factory workers, appealing a largely rural population in non-agricultural labour. It seemed an unlimited supply of rural labourers and low cost of entry for firms made homework common and opened the system to exploitation. But it is the fact that a good deal of homeworkers in this country and in others exists solely because they can be forced to the lowest stages of misery. Working from home created the first system of subcontract, by creating a three-tiered structure with manufacturers, who purchased the materials, at the top, workers who produced for piece rates in their homes at the bottom, and subcontractors in between. The outwork system represented a significant development in relations between labour and capital. One more item in a detached list of costs to be acquired in the cheapest market was to put into practice more obviously in the outwork system than anywhere else. In 1845, the chairwoman of a group of working women in New York said she knew of employers paying wages of between 10 and 18 cents per day. Homeworkers as young as 5 years old toiled 14 to 18 hours a day in these home-based sweatshops, paid by the quantity or by the day. As the 19th century advanced, work moved slowly out of the home and into the factory. An 1867 ad for the Weed Sewing Machine Company depicted a mother and daughter, in their home, sewing by hand in the candlelight. The ad pitched its automated sewing machine as the liberator of these women, but conditions in the factories with improved technology were hardly better. The persistence of plentiful supplies of labour in the countryside allowed work to continue, but by the early 20th century, the fast leap of industrial development and urbanization caused the factory system to replace outwork. On the whole Factory workers earned better wages and laboured under better conditions than homeworkers, but in many cases, the location of the sweatshop merely moved from the rural homes to the urban factories. London garment workers at the start of the century were mostly young women, working from 12 hour shifts on Monday through to Friday, and from 8...
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