Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops, 1820-Present
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Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops, 1820-Present

by Peter Liebhold and Harry Rubenstein

Demonstrations and public campaigns against well-known corporations such as Nike, Wal-Mart and The Gap have raised awareness of sweatshops among many Americans, especially among many young people. Peter Liebold and Harry Rubenstein, curators of an exhibition on sweatshops at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, place the current debate on sweatshops in the garment industry in a historical context and explore the complex factors that contribute to their existence today. (Posted July 1998)

On August 2, 1995, police officers raided a fenced compound of seven apartments in El Monte, California. They arrested eight operators of a clandestine garment sweatshop and freed 72 illegal Thai immigrants who had been forced to sew in virtual captivity. Although many sweatshops in recent years had been raided, El Monte captured national media attention and was used by U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, California State Labor Commissioner Victoria L. Bradshaw, and others to galvanize the American public into action.

The Clinton Administration established the White House Apparel Industry Partnership, made up of representativers from industry, labor, government, and public-interest groups, to pursue non-regulatory solutions to sweatshop abuses in the United States and abroad. Following much-publicized sweatshop abuses in the United States and abroad several corporations such as The Gap, Wal-Mart, and Nike have felt compelled to make public pronouncements on how they are improving their garment production methods. Although the El Monte incident was an extreme case of exploitation, sweatshops are not new to America. Since the dawning of the Industrial Revolution, many generations of Americans have toiled in sweatshops. Then, as now, their labor has been accompanied by widespread debate over what constitutes a fair wage, reasonable working conditions, and society’s responsibility for meeting those standards.

The Smithsonian Institution’s exhibition Between a Rock and a Hard Place places the current debate on sweatshops in the garment industry in a historical context and explores the complex factors that contribute to their existence today. What is a Sweatshop? A sweatshop is more than just a metaphor for a lousy job. Although there is no clear, single definition of the term, it generally refers to a workplace where relatively unskilled employees work long hours for substandard pay in unhealthy and unsafe conditions. The term “sweatshop” was first used in the late 19th century to describe aspects of the tailoring trade, but sweatshop conditions exist in other industries as well. The forces that promote sweatshop production have always been varied. Some shops are the result of greed and opportunism; others stem from competitive pressures. Understanding why sweatshops persist today means exploring issues of global competition, government regulation, immigration, business practices, and racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination.

1820–1880: The Seamstress Impoverished

Seamstresses were familiar figures in early 19th-century American cities, filling the needs of an expanding garment industry. Working at home, they stitched bundles of pre-cut fabric into clothing worn by Southern slaves, Western miners, and New England gentlemen. Dressmakers were responsible for producing an entire garment and could earn a decent wage. Seamstresses, however, were poorly compensated for work that was both physically demanding and unpredictable. Paid by the piece, seamstresses worked 16 hours a day during the busiest seasons, but their income rarely exceeding bare subsistence. Making matters worse was, shop owners were notorious for finding fault with the finished garments and withholding payment. Consequently, seamstresses often relied on charity for their own and their families' survival.

1880–1940: Tenement Sweatshops

In many cities, recent immigrants converted small apartments into contract shops that doubled as living quarters. Fierce competition among contractors for work and immigrants* desperate need for employment kept wages down and hours up. As miserable as this work was, it provided many new arrivals a transition into American society and a more prosperous future for themselves and their families. Some immigrants began working in small shops, eventually owning large clothing firms. Others succumbed to disease, malnutrition, and exhaustion, and never found the path from tenement sweatshop to a better life.

1940-Present: The Resurgence of Sweatshops

Sweatshop production came out of hibernation in the late 1960s. A combination of forces at home and abroad contributed to their reappearance: changes in the retail industry, a growing global economy, increased reliance on contracting, and a large pool of immigrant labor in the U.S. The focus of public, government, and media concern remains centered on problems in the apparel industry, although, as in the past, sweatshops continue to be found in a variety of industries.

Sweatshops Today

In the United States, sweatshops produce garments for the domestic market, primarily items that require short delivery times. These clothes are often indistinguishable from garments produced in legal shops and can be found in stores ranging from discount houses to fashionable boutiques. Foreign sweatshops are harder to define. Widely varying standards of pay and workers' rights make it difficult to compare practices in the United States with other countries. Demand for reform has lead to many initiatives from government, unions, public interest groups and the industry itself.

Seeking Solutions through Cooperation

President Clinton formed the White House Apparel Industry Partnership, in 1996, to pursue non-regulatory solutions. The group is made up of representatives from industry, labor, government, and public-interest groups. Riding the crest of public opinion following the El Monte raid the U.S. Congress authorized an increase in the number of Department of Labor Wage and Hour investigators from 800 to 1,000. Unions and community activists have also increased their visibility. In New York and Los Angeles the needleworkers' union, UNITE, has held many public demonstrations, increased its organizing activity, and has engaged in an innovative community organization program. Activists and concerned citizens seeking to curb sweatshop production have copied some of the tactics pioneered in the fight against racism in South Africa. Beginning in the late 1970s, many institutional and individual investors battled apartheid by divesting the stock they owned in companies doing business in South Africa. Today, several mutual fund companies offer "socially responsible" investment portfolios that do not include companies involved in sweatshop production. Religious groups are also involved in the fight against sweatshops. For example The Los Angeles Jewish Commission on Sweatshops came together in an effort to attempt to capture the conscience of the Jewish community by making connections between present day Jewish garment company owners and the experiences of Jewish immigrants 100 years earlier.

While many companies in the apparel industry have been reluctant to admit that there is a problem with sweatshops a growing number have been moving towards instituting codes of conduct. In 1991 Levi Strauss & Co. the world’s largest clothing manufacturer instituted the first corporate code of responsible contracting. Since then, the practice has become more common in the garment industry. Workplace monitoring is one way to ensure that contractors abide by manufacturers' codes of conduct. Whether these inspections should be performed by manufacturers* representatives or by independent monitors remains highly controversial.

While the importance of El Monte and the prevalence of sweatshops is hotly contended the public awareness of problems through media coverage has been greatly increased. Some industry representatives suggested the situation has been blown out of proportion. Others wonder whether it was just the tip of the iceberg. As was the case 90 years earlier following the Triangle fire some of the efforts at reform will bring about real change while others will fail. Is It Getting Better? When we began working on this exhibition, we expected to be able to answer this simple question. We assumed that we could determine how much clothing sweatshops produced and how many people they employed. We were wrong. There are no simple answers. Depending on their source, estimates of the number of garment sweatshops in the United States vary greatly. In 1996, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that out of 22,000 U.S. garment shops, at least half were in serious violation of wage and safety laws. No one knows for sure. Some historical trends are evident. For garment workers, it is clear that working conditions were oppressive in the 1910s, had improved by the 1950s, but worsened in the 1980s. For consumers, prices have steadily dropped. The current interest in sweatshops is encouraging. We hope that through greater public awareness of a complex industry and cooperation among business, labor, government, and consumers, solutions will be found.

A web version of Between a Rock and a Hard Place can be found at http://americanhistory.si.edu/sweatshops/

Other web sites that might be of interest include: Sweatshop Watch, UNITE, Corporate Watch, US Department of Labor, Global Exchange.