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Should We Sweat It?


Every day first world citizens benefit from the labor of those in other countries. Most of the labor is performed in poorly run facilities that have a tendency to take advantage of the employees. Sweatshops have been an industrial stronghold since America took the world of business by surprise in the eighteen-hundreds. The use of sweatshops is not hidden but widely ignored by the masses. I wanted to research this topic to better understand sweatshops and how they function, after seeing a political commentary on it. The purpose of this essay is to delve into how sweatshops affect companies outsourcing labor and the people providing labor. The essay will cover why America outsources labor, the effects of outsourcing labor, and alternatives for employers and employees.

In order to have a better understanding of the topic at hand, let’s talk about the history of sweatshops. Sweatshops are places of work, usually factories/other industrial sites that are characterized by poor working conditions, low wages, long hours, child labor, and lack of workplace benefits. Since the coining of the term in the mid-eighteen hundreds, sweatshops have been used in a plethora of countries across all inhabited continents. In addition to the use of sweatshops overseas, they have a storied past in American history. In the mid-eighteen-hundreds, as everyday-folk began transitioning into city environments, sweatshops seemed like accessible ways to get money. By the early nineteen-hundreds, investigative journalists whose primary goal was to bring reform, such as Jacob Riis, were key in the education of the public concerning the conditions in sweatshops. Exposés put a light on big corporations and prompted the government to step in. Established companies already employed immigrants, so under public and legal scrutiny, they decided to move some operations overseas. This act of obtaining goods and/or services from foreign suppliers is known as outsourcing, which is a practice used today and translated American sweatshops overseas. Outsourced labor is astronomically cheaper as it saves modern companies upwards of sixty-percent on labor costs (Hanks). That is only one of the positive effects of sweatshops on American business. In addition to the lower labor costs, American consumers enjoy consistent and cheap products which range from clothing to cell phones. As a matter of fact, the use of outsourced labor in the sector of “fast fashion”, has led to large scale growth which trickles down into the economy (Duncan), and is why some don’t see a problem with it. Something that we need to remember however is that there are real people on the other side of these products.

There are two general sides of people when it comes to sweatshops. There are people who look at the situation from a purely economic standpoint, and those who consider the economy and the wellbeing of employees. When it comes to people viewing sweatshops economically, they believe that sweatshops actually help the workers. They say that sweatshops are a stepping stone to better lives in exchange for some hard labor. They say that the low wages are a small price to pay for the workers so that they can save up in order to get out of their current situation (which is usually living in a poor country, lacking basic commodities). They also believe that the work experience proves to be valuable in order for the workers to get more job opportunities as the jobs are usually temporary. Sweatshops provide an escape from extreme poverty as we see in China where rates fell from eighty-four percent down to just twelve (NUES). There is also speculation concerning the alternatives that would be available to sweatshop workers. Proponents for sweatshops reported that sweatshops were a way to keep people, especially women and children, out of trafficking rings or a life of agricultural work (Carden). Sweatshops can also be very lucrative for the countries they are in. As a matter of fact, sweatshop products account for eighty percent of exports in places such as Bangladesh (“Sweatshops in Bangladesh”, 2019). Let’s take a look at how the other side views this issue. They believe that sweatshops just contribute to a cycle of poverty and in many cases aren’t even necessary for people to escape poverty. Sweatshops may earn a lot of money, but how much of that money goes to the workers? An average sweatshop worker will get thirteen to fifteen U.S. dollars a month. The sweatshop system provides little pay and demands up to sixteen hours of work a day. This lifestyle can take a toll on health and thereby uses up the money that is supposedly going to be set aside as savings. Another way sweatshops pose a great risk to health is that many today aren’t equipped with proper ventilation or fire-safety systems. Sweatshops have claimed over ten million lives so far. In terms of the “stepping-stone” theory, researchers found that yes, the jobs are usually temporary. There is a turnover rate where about two-thirds of workers quit sweatshop jobs within a year, but the workers that left were able to make about the same amount of money, if not more on their own. In addition to that, their chances of having a serious injury were cut nearly in half outside of the industrial jobs. The study, based out of Ethiopia, found that workers that left their jobs to go back to the marketplace, agriculture, and construction based jobs had an easier time doing so because they could set their own hours (Blattman and Dercon). The sweatshops obviously weren’t affected by this change as they just added on more workers, because sweatshop work is sometimes the best or only option for those living in third world countries. So what can be done for the people that work in sweatshops?

In order to improve the lives of sweatshop workers, there are many changes that could impact the foreseeable future. First and probably most importantly, we can push for better insurance policies and more qualified managers. This would hopefully make the jobs safer and more appealing as well as providing the workers with proper guidance. We can also be more aware of the products we buy and where they are manufactured. For those that take this issue seriously, they can start buying locally made products that are union and fair trade. It is also important to educate others on sweatshops and their effects on people (“What You Can Do About Sweatshops”, 2019).

Sweatshops have been in use for centuries and their economic impact is definitely noticed. They usually mark the industrial growth of a nation. Sweatshops provide cheap labor for big names. Verifiably, top companies such as Nike, Apple, Cisco, IBM, and Walmart, have used sweatshops (Stewart). However, the workers don’t get to enjoy the benefits of their hard work. Sweatshops may seem economically conscious, but people are more than numbers. We looked over what sweatshops are and how they affect people, domestically and internationally. The time for change is now, and the consumers are capable. As citizens of developed countries, we can help our brothers and sisters in third world countries achieve greatness because we have learned from the past and we don’t have to repeat it.

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Andrew Dixon
See all posts by Andrew Dixon