In its mission statement, the National Labor Committee (NLC) highlights the problem stating:
Transnational corporations (TNCs) now roam the world to find the cheapest and most vulnerable workers.” They’re mostly young women in poor countries like China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Haiti, and many others working up to 14 or more hours a day for sub-poverty wages under horrific conditions.
Because TNCs are unaccountable, a dehumanized global workforce is ruthlessly exploited, denied their civil liberties, a living wage, and the right to work in dignity in healthy safe environments. NLC conducts “popular campaigns based on (its) original research to promote worker rights and pressure companies to end human and labor abuses. (It) views worker rights in the global economy as indivisible and inalienable human rights and (believes) now is the time to secure them for all on the planet.
Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
Article 24 states: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.”
Definition of a Sweatshop
The term has been around since the 19th century.
Definitions vary but essentially refer to workplaces where employees work for poor pay, few or no benefits, in unsafe, unfavorable, harsh, and/or hazardous environments, are treated inhumanely by employers, and are prevented from organizing for redress.
The term itself refers to the technique of “sweating” the maximum profit from each worker, a practice that thrived in the late 19th century.
Webster calls them “A shop or factory in which workers are employed for long hours at low wages under unhealthy conditions.”
According to the group Sweatshop Watch:
A sweatshop is a workplace that violates the law and where workers are subject to:
— extreme exploitation, including the absence of a living wage or long hours;
— poor working conditions, such as health and safety hazards;
— arbitrary discipline, such as verbal or physical abuse, or
— fear and intimidation when they speak out, organize, or attempt to form a union.
It’s mainly a women’s rights issue as 90% of the workforce is female, between the ages of 15-25. But it’s also an environmental one as the global economy exacts a huge price through air pollution, ozone layer depletion, acid rain, ocean and fresh water contamination, and an overtaxed ecosystem producing unhealthy, unsafe living conditions globally.
According to the US Department of Labor, a sweatshop is a place of employment that violates two or more federal or state labor laws governing wage and overtime, child labor, industrial homework, occupational safety and health, workers’ compensation or industry regulation.
To understand the practice, it’s essential to view it in a broader globalization context. In their book titled, Globalization and Progressive Economic Policy, Dean Baker, Robert Pollin and Gerald Epstein present the opinions of 36 prominent economists, asking:
Does globalization cause inequality? Instability? Unemployment? Environmental degradation? Or is it an engine of prosperity and wealth for the vast majority of people everywhere? They conclude that it can work for good or ill depending on how much control governments, corporations, and individuals exert, but also say:
…most discussions of globalization hold that the power of nation-states to influence economic activity is eroding as economies become more integrated, while the power of private businesses and market forces is correspondingly rising.
In other words, the dog that once wagged the tail now is the tail, the result of eroded state sovereignty and powerful private institutions, producing a race to the bottom conducive to exploiting labor — most prominently in poor countries but also in developed ones.
Wage Slavery in America
In America, the US Department of Labor estimates that half or more of the nation’s 22,000 garment factories are sweatshops, mostly in the apparel centers of New York, California, Dallas, Miami and Atlanta, but also offshore in US territories like Saipan, Guam and American Samoa where merchandise is labeled “Made in the USA.”
In all locations, wages are low, often sub-poverty, benefits few if any, and regulatory enforcement lax or absent. Hours are long, working conditions unsafe, and those complaining are fired and replaced.
Conditions are also horrific for around two million farm workers — exploited, living in sub-poverty misery, without benefits, a living wage, overtime pay, or other job protections, even for children. Because state and federal oversight are lax, Florida workers have been chained to poles, locked in trucks, physically beaten, and cheated out of pay, yet are intimidated to stay silent.
They also perform dangerous jobs, experience workplace accidents, and are exposed daily to toxic chemicals. As a result, about 300,000 suffer pesticide poisoning annually, and many others experience accidents, musculoskeletal, and other type injuries, some serious.
Workers in Florida, Texas, California, Washington, and North Carolina are most vulnerable, with nowhere to go for redress except those benefitting from a few organizing victories. Impressive as they are, however, they’re no match against agribusiness giants or companies like Wal-Mart, a ruthless exploiter of worker rights.
Domestic servitude is another problem affecting many thousands, usually foreign women taking jobs as live-in workers, mostly for the wealthy, foreign diplomats, or other domestic or foreign officials. They seek a better life, send money home to families, yet are exploited — often by unscrupulous traffickers who hold them in forced servitude, work them up to 19 hours a day, pay them $100 or less a month, and subject them to sexual abuse.
They’re are excluded from labor law protections. As a result, they’re underpaid, work long hours, have little rest, are abused, given limited freedom, denied medical care, proper food and nutrition, and are subjected to unsafe working conditions.
So are many restaurant and hotel workers — underpaid with few benefits, worked long hours without overtime pay, fired if they complain, and these practices exist for lack of regulation and a growing demand for cheap labor, letting unscrupulous employers exploit powerless workers for profit. If it’s common in America, what chance have workers in developing countries with lax labor laws offering few protections, even for children, to attract business.
Abuse happens often in dangerous, unhealthy environments for sub-poverty wages, with no overtime pay, breaks or bathroom visits, even when sick. Employees suffer numerous accidents (at times severe), can’t organize, and are harassed, intimidated, and fired if they try.
In today’s globalized economy, capital is highly mobile, free to go anywhere for the highest return by fleeing locales with high taxes, strict labor laws, or rigorous environmental protections yielding lower profits by raising costs, the main one being labor that’s easy to get cheap in developing states eager to grow and needing to new businesses do it. The result is a race to the bottom, a phenomenon Karl Polanyi described in The Great Transformation — namely, that:
“To allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings… would result in the demolition of society…. Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed.” And labor, of course, exploited for the lowest cost.
NLC on Wal-Mart
With over $400 billion in sales and about 2.1 million employees, Wal-Mart is the world’s largest retailer and private employer, and number three globally in the 2009 Fortune 500 rankings behind Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon.
On December 16, 2009, NLC reported that “Wal-Mart’s Punitive Policies Drive Employees to Work Sick – Everyone comes to work sick.”
(1) A deli section worker in a Pennsylvania company supercenter said:
“Everyone comes to work sick,” including employees handling food. In the deli section, “plenty of girls come coughing their brains out, but can’t go home because of points (unless they’re) coughing too loudly (in which case they) switch you to another department. Since you can’t take days off,” she kept working. Her cough worsened, and she ended up hospitalized with pneumonia.
“You can’t stay home, and God forbid if you have to leave early.” For being hospitalized, she got a demerit, lost eight hours pay, and was required to take a leave of absence. Being sick, deli section work was hard because it’s a “hot area,” requiring in and out visits to a freezer to get meat.
“Everyone is sweating and your hair is all wet, but we can’t use fans because of the dust.” Under Wal-Mart’s “Open Availability” policy, management demands all associates be available 24-7. “A flood of people would leave the company if they could find other work. Fear and need” keep them there.
(2) A worker taking time off to be with her injured, traumatized son was docked eight hours pay, then said:
“Wal-Mart puts you in the position where you are supposed to put your job ahead of your children.”
Like others, she worked sick to avoid demerits and lost wages. One time she worked with a strep throat, the infection spread, and she became so dehydrated she passed out and needed hospitalization. Out three days, she was penalized a day’s pay.
(3) A senior Wal-Mart employee told NLC about supervisors acting “like bullies who like to intimidate workers.”
(4) Another Wal-Mart worker told NLC:
“Wal-Mart’s (sick) policy has not changed, and they have not said a word to anyone. No one knows of any change….and everyone continues coming to work, even if they are really sick,” including food handlers.
They get demerits but not told how many. Workers accumulating four in six months get verbal or written “coaching.” One more means no promotions or upgrading from part-time to full-time status for those working less than a full load.
As a result, one worker said morale is low and “pretty much everyone hates their jobs,” but haven’t much choice in today’s economic climate. Even Wal-Mart instituted staff cuts, making it harder for shoppers to be served. Some of them yell “at us all the time, screaming and cursing at us” for a situation out of their control.
(5) At Wal-Mart, workers needing a day off must request it four weeks in advance, no matter what the emergency.
(6) At the company’s Nampa, Idaho supercenter, a worker was fired for having Swine Flu. At first she worked sick, then wasn’t able to several days and wasn’t paid. Feeling a little better, she came in, but by early evening was so ill she was taken to an emergency room, couldn’t work for two days, and was docked more pay plus demerits.
She already had three for taking time off to care for her sick mother and contracting the flu. Disciplinary action follows after six. It’s called “Decision Day,” or “D-Day” on which employees must write an essay on why they like working at Wal-Mart, why they should keep their job, and how they’ll improve their future performance. Based on their comments, they’re either retained or fired, but if kept, they’re placed on probation for a full year during which firing follows the slightest infraction.
Nampa supercenter employees call it “cleaning out,” when workers are fired for any reason — minor infractions, slow traffic, firing full-time staff for cheap part-time ones or temps.
One worker was fired for accumulating flu-related demerits. On November 6, 2009, a Wal-Mart spokesperson told ABC’s Good Morning America:
“Wal-Mart will not fire any worker for having Swine Flu.”
Workers tell a different story. So does Global Exchange.org, saying the company leads “the race to the bottom” by its unfair labor practices:
— half of their employees get no health insurance, and those with it pay a large percentage of the cost and receive too little; and
— the company has a long, disturbing record of worker abuse, including forced overtime, some off-the-clock, illegal child and undocumented worker labor, and relentless union-busting; as a result, Wal-Mart faces numerous suits over unpaid overtime, denial of meal and rest breaks, manipulating time and wage records to cut costs, employing minors during school hours, and the largest ever class action discrimination lawsuit, involving over 1.5 million present and former female employees, paid less and promoted less often than their male counterparts.
In December 2008, Wal-Mart agreed to pay at least $352 million and up to $640 million to settle 63 federal and state class-action lawsuits from present and former employees over pay and other issues. According to Professor Paul Secunda of Marquette’s School of Law, the company settled to avoid an even worse defeat, including what unionization might cost.
Overall, Wal-Mart treats employees punitively. They’re overworked, underpaid, (many below the federal poverty line), denied benefits, discriminated against, punished for the slightest infraction, and treated like wage slaves.
In addition, its operations are predatory, punitive, and destructive as local businesses can’t compete and go under, the result being lost jobs, broken lives, and harmed communities. Its also ruthless in pressuring global sweatshop suppliers for low prices, all the worse because the company wields such enormous power.
Study Exposes the Dark Side of Worker Exploitation in America’s Three Largest Cities
From January to August 2008, the Center for Urban Economic Development, the National Employment Law Project, and the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment exposed the dark side of workforce exploitation in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — revealing practices common throughout America, especially during the global economic crisis making workers more vulnerable and eager for any job.
Their findings documented flagrant workplace violations, core protections most Americans take for granted, including a guaranteed minimum wage, overtime pay, regular meal and other breaks, compensation for on-the-job injuries, and the right to bargain collectively. The study revealed:
- below minimum wage pay;
- unpaid overtime;
- denial of meal and other breaks;
- illegal pay deductions;
- tip stealing from tipped workers;
- illegal employer retaliation against workers demanding their rights or attempting to form a union; and
- workers denied legal protection by being classified as independent contractors.
Most affected were workers in apparel and textile manufacturing, personal and repair services, and private household employment. Small companies were worse than larger ones. Hourly workers and those paid by company check were treated better than those getting a weekly wage or in cash. Immigrants, women, the foreign born, and others in vulnerable categories were most at risk, but all workers are affected to some extent.
The abuses documented are endemic in key industries throughout the country, and have a profound effect on workers, their families and communities, especially with true unemployment over 20% and increased job losses monthly during the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.
Low-wage worker rights are compromised across the board — in jobs ranging from agriculture, meat and poultry processing, hotels and restaurants, retailing, nursing homes, day care centers, and residential construction in every city where exploitive day labor hiring exist. American workers face a system where business is empowered, their rights are eroding, and government is their enemy, not ally.
Sweatshops in Developing Countries
Abroad, exploitation is endemic in agriculture, mines, and factories producing garments, shoes, rugs, toys, chocolate, and other products. The same abuses are common — 60-80 hour workweeks, sub-poverty wages as low as pennies an hour, and no benefits in hazardous environments. Workers are harassed, intimidated, forced to work overtime, prevented from organizing, and fired if they complain.
Global sweatshops are mostly in Asia, Central and South America employing tens of millions of workers. It’s also a children’s issue as the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 250 million between the ages of 5-14 work in developing countries — 61% in Asia, 32% in Africa and 7% in Latin America, but scattered numbers show up everywhere. Many are forced to work, at times abducted, work for less pay than adults, and are denied an education and normal childhood. Worse still, some are confined, brutally exploited, beaten, and sexually abused with no one looking out for their welfare.
National Labor Committee (NLC) Sweatshop Report on a China Factory
On February 10, 2009, Jason Chen headlined, “Your Keyboards May Have Been Made in Appalling Conditions,” then explained that Microsoft, IBM, Dell, Lenovo, and HP keyboards likely were made under horrific working conditions at a Meitai Dongguan City, China factory.
“Workers are prohibited from talking, listening to music, raising their heads, putting their hands in their pockets.” They’re fined for being one minute late, not trimming their fingernails, and for stepping on the grass. They’re searched on entering or leaving the facility, and anyone handing out flyers or discussing working conditions with outsiders are fired.
The assembly line never stops, so workers needing bathroom breaks must wait for the scheduled time. Overtime is mandatory, “with 12-hour shifts seven days a week and an average of two days off a month.” Anyone taking Sunday off is docked two and a half days’ pay. Including unpaid overtime, workers average up to 81 hours a week on site for a 74 workweek, including 34 hours of overtime, 318% above China’s legal limit.
Their base pay is 64 cents an hour, way below their basic needs, and after deductions for “primitive room and board,” take-home wages are 41 cents an hour. For 75 hours a week, including overtime, it comes to $57.19 or 76 cents an hour. Routinely, workers are cheated of up to 19% of pay due them.
They’re also docked two hours wages for “not lining up correctly while punching time cards or at the cafeteria,” 4 and a half hours for taking personal phone calls, not working “diligently,” raising their head to look around, putting personal possessions on their work desk, listening to the radio, “not parking bicycles according to company regulations,” riding them at the facility not according to company rules, and returning to dorms after curfew.
They’re penalized seven hours wages for switching beds without permission, one and a half day’s pay for arriving over one hour late, riding the elevator without permission, using dorm electricity without permission, using company phones for personal calls, producing low quality, socializing with other employees during working hours, entering or leaving the factory without being inspected, or treating supervisors “with an arrogant attitude.”
They lose three days’ pay for leaving their workstation without permission, putting up notices or handing out flyers, or “revealing confidential company or production-related information.”
They’re fired for violating labor discipline, participating in prohibited groups (such as unions, human or civil rights organizations, or non-sanctioned religious ones), not observing government regulations on stopping work, slowing it down, or encouraging others to do it, missing three days work, disobeying China’s one-child policy or company rules, causing trouble, or colluding in prohibited behavior.
NLC Report on Jordan Sweatshop
On July 24, 2009, an NLC report headlined, “US-Jordan Free Trade Agreement Stumbles,” citing “human trafficking, abuse, forced overtime, primitive dorm conditions, imprisonment and forcible deportations of foreign guest workers at” Jordan’s Musa Garment factory, owned by two Israeli businessmen, Jack Braun and Moshe Cohen.
About 209 workers are employed, included 181 foreign guest workers, 132 from Bangladesh and 49 from India. NLC explains the following abuses:
(1) Human trafficking
On arrival, foreign guest workers are illegally stripped of their passports for as long as three or more years, despite repeated pleas to return them.
(2) Primitive dorm conditions
As many as 10 workers live in small 12 x 14 rooms, sleeping on double-level bug-infested bunk beds. There’s no shower. Water is available only one or two hours a night. Forced to conserve it, workers use small plastic buckets for morning sponge baths. It’s not potable. Bathrooms are filthy and have no doors or lights.
The roof leaks and shoddy electrical system wiring frequently shorts out. With no proper kitchen, workers cook in their rooms. No heat or hot water is provided despite winter temperatures as low as freezing. They have to use their own money for portable heaters, and anyone complaining is threatened or beaten.
(3) Substandard food
Company-provided food is half cooked, raw on the inside, tasting terrible, and inadequate. Breakfast is a piece of pita bread and tea. Three times a week, they get an egg. Lunch is small portions of fish, beef, chicken or eggs with rice. Dinner is vegetables and rice. Amounts are so inadequate, workers have to supplement with their own.
(4) Forced overtime and seven-day workweeks
After the onset of global economic crisis, working hours have been from 7:30AM to 4:00 or 4:30PM with Fridays off. However, before December 2008, they worked up to 13 and a half hours daily from 7:30AM up to 9:00PM seven days a week. Overtime was obligatory, and missing a shift resulted in two or three days pay docked. Including mandatory overtime, workers earned from $211-$268 a month.
Most Jordanians won’t work in garment factories, so tens of thousands of guest workers are recruited. They endure illegal abuses, but put up with them to support their families at home.
(5) Failure to communicate
The plant manager is Palestinian. Supervisors are Bangladeshi. They earn four times worker rates, and are told to drive them as hard as possible as well as spy on and control them.
One incident was over worker complaints about lack of water. Supervisor Mr. Rezaul mocked them, saying he’d cut of their penises if they kept complaining. Around the same time, supervisor Mr. Mosharraf slapped a woman very hard in the face for not meeting her quota. Anger was building for months. A work stoppage followed, after which 10-12 policemen entered the factory, threatened the workers and said either work or be handcuffed and imprisoned. The incident continued for days, including more threats and beatings, finally getting about 50 police to charge the dorm, arrest and imprison 24 workers, including 10 men and 14 women.
Six were held for over a week, then forcibly deported without their personal belongings. The others were released. While in prison, they were beaten, had no mattresses, no pillows, little food, and unsafe drinking water. The six deported had worked in Jordan for up to five years with no complaints against them.
Six other Musa workers were imprisoned in unknown locations. Factory conditions remain deplorable, and workers are threatened with imprisonment if they fail to meet mandatory production goals, called excessive and impossible to achieve. As a result, they’re terrified since management targets the most outspoken.
After the US-Jordan Free Trade Agreement took effect in December 2001, Jordanian exports to America rose 2,000 percent, the result of virtually no worker protections, making them easily exploitable.
NLC Report on Bangladesh Sweatshop: The Kabir Steel Yard, Chittagong
In September 2009, an NLC report was titled, “Where Ships and Workers Go To Die: Shipbreaking in Bangladesh & The Failure of Global Institutions to Protect Worker Rights.” NLC Executive Director Charles Kernaghan wrote a preface saying “If There Is a Hell on Earth, This Is It,” calling the Kabir site “one of the strangest, most striking and frightening (ones) in the world.”
About 30,000 workers dismantle enormous decommissioned tanker ships — 20 stories high weighing 25 million pounds, up to 1,000 feet long, and from 95-164 feet wide. They perform the world’s most hazardous jobs 12 hours a day, seven days a week for 22-32 cents an hour “handling and breathing in dangerous toxic waste and with no safeguards whatsoever and under conditions that violate every local and international labor law.” Serious injuries happen daily, in some cases paralyzing, for others deaths every three or four weeks. Over the past 30 years, as many as 2,000 have been killed. Life is cheap, and no one cares.
Employing mostly young men, but also children as young as 11, the operation has been ongoing for over 30 years under horrific conditions. Workers use hammers to break up 15,000 pounds of asbestos in each ship, then dump it on the sand to wash away.
Four to six of them share primitive rooms, often sleeping on a filthy concrete floor. No one can afford a mattress. Roofs leak so, on rainy nights, they have to sit up covering themselves with plastic sheets. Their shower is a hand water pump. They deserve better and don’t ask for much — 60 cents an hour, legal overtime wages, one day a week off, sick days, holidays, and healthcare to cover job injuries.
On September 5, 2009, a worker was burned to death breaking apart a South Korean tanker. Another is in critical condition, and three more were seriously burned when their blowtorches struck a gas tank that exploded, engulfing them in flames.
They’re often paralyzed or crushed to death by falling metal plates. On July 14, 2008, a 13-year old child was killed when a large iron one struck his head. Accidents like these aren’t reported, and investigations are never held.
On average, each ship contains about 15,000 pounds of asbestos and 10-100 tons of lead paint. As a result, workers are exposed to toxins from asbestos, lead, PCBs, mercury, arsenic, dioxins, cadmium, solvents, black oil residues and carcinogenic fumes from melting metal and lead paint. In addition, Bangladesh beaches, ocean, and fishing villages sustain heavy environmental contamination.
Helpers, often children, go barefoot or wear flip flops, use hammers to break apart asbestos, then shovel it into bags to dump in the sand. The most rudimentary protective gear is absent. Cutters using blowtorches wear sunglasses, not protective goggles; baseball caps, not hardhats; dirty bandanas around their noses and mouths, not respiratory masks; and two sets of shirts, not welders’ vests, hoping not to get burned but they do daily.
All International Labor Organization (ILO) and Bangladesh labor laws are blatantly violated. Anyone asking for proper wages is immediately fired. Workers are assured of early deaths because conditions haven’t changed in over 30 years.
A dead worker is worth $1,400. On August 12, 2008, a worker was crushed by a metal plate when a cable holding it up snapped. Another worker’s leg was so badly hurt, it was amputated. A third one’s hand was crushed. It’s now paralyzed. In vain, the dead man’s mother begged for help with burial expenses. Only after a long struggle and legal aid did she get 100,000 taka, $1,453, a cheap price for a life.
After sustaining serious injuries, another worker said:
I was struck and knocked down to the ground. I was unconscious. I was admitted to the Chittagong Al Sattar Hospital….My backbone is broken and my head was badly injured. Now my bodily organs are not functioning. I feel nothing in my chest or back… I cannot feel my stomach… I wish I could move like I did before.
He demanded justice for his injuries, and doctors said he had a chance with proper treatment. Surgery, however, would cost 750,000 taka, $10,900, a cost the shipyard wouldn’t pay. Instead, they let him rot in bed with no end in sight for his misery.
Another worker said: “We are fighting with death always. This is not work. This is a place of punishment and death….We can’t afford food, so how are we going to see a doctor and purchase medicines.”
Others said work in the shipyard “is to invite death. Here a dog is more important than a human being,” easily replaced. “After a cow ploughs for one or two hours, they have to be fed. But not us. We have to work 12-14 hours with nothing.”
Workers aren’t united. They have no union. They can’t bargain. If they try to organize, they’ll be fired and replaced. “What the owner says is the law…. We work. We eat. We sleep. We don’t have any life.”
Inside ships, it’s hot. “Very hot. We are sweating. Everyone is soaked.” They often work on “floating stairs,” bamboo rope ladders. It’s “very risky.” They hang on with one hand and operate a blowtorch with the other and use their teeth to turn liquid gas and oxygen valves on and off.
A leading Bangladeshi attorney, Syeda Rizwana Hasan, said he hadn’t:
come across another sector where every two weeks a minimum of one person is dying and there is no labour unrest. These workers are dying, getting cancer, getting skin diseases; they are also losing their hands and legs. After working in the ship breaking yards for a few years, their bodies are in such a horrible condition that they can barely do any other form of labour. It’s essentially a crippling way of life.
NLC calls the world “a desperate place for the poor.” Global trade rules don’t protect them. They struggle to keep jobs they know will harm or kill them because of no choice. How else can they support their families.