Around the world, the garment industry is notorious for exposing workers to abusive sweatshop conditions, from poverty-level wages to forced overtime to verbal and physical abuse. Consequently, many concerned Americans have vowed to only buy clothes with the “Made in the USA” label, to avoid supporting companies tied to sweatshops.
But that label isn’t always enough to ensure that the workers who made your clothes weren’t exploited. While few would argue that conditions in US clothing factories rival those found in countries like Bangladesh, sweatshop garment factories do exist inside US borders—and the overwhelming majority of their workers are immigrants.
Immigrant workers in the clothing industry, in the US as well as around the world, “tend to have temporary legal status that is dependent on their relationship with their employer, meaning that workers can become easily ‘illegal’ should that relationship be terminated,” states a 2009 report from the Clean Clothes Campaign. “That insecurity is magnified by the fact that ... many have incurred substantial debts in the process of acquiring work and/or papers,” and so they’re willing to tolerate abuse for fear of losing their “already precarious” livelihoods.
Domestic Sweatshop Factories
The US Department of Labor (DOL) defines a sweatshop as any factory that violates two or more labor laws, such as those pertaining to wages and benefits, working hours, and child labor. In 1996, the DOL estimated that at least half of the 22,000 garment shops in the US fit this definition.
Today, most documented cases of US sweatshops occur in California and New York. Between 2008-2012, for example, the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division investigated over 1,500 employers in the garment industry in Los Angeles, San Diego, and surrounding areas, finding labor law violations in 93 percent of cases. Most of the workers involved were immigrants from Asia and Latin America.
The most prominent violation was that factory workers routinely weren’t making the federal minimum hourly wage, because they were paid by each piece they sewed and cut, rather than by the hour. For most workers, this meant a wage of around $5 $6/hour as opposed to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and the $8/hour state minimum in California). The DOL also reported that most workers were often putting in 10-12 hour days, seven days a week, with no overtime pay.
In 2012, the DOL raided ten garment factories in the fashion district of Los Angeles and determined that due to wage and overtime violations, the factories owed more than $326,200 in back wages to 185 employees.
Turning a Blind Eye
“It is illegal to sell garments made in domestic sweatshops, but many retailers will turn the blind eyes and feign ignorance of labor problems in their supply chain,” says Elizabeth O’Connell, director of Green America’s Fair Trade program.
For example, the clothes made in L.A. facilities investigated by the DOL in 2012 were destined for more than 30 US retailers, including the Burlington Coat Factory, Dillard’s Inc, Forever 21, Ross, TJ Maxx, Urban Outfitters, and Wet Seal.
“The extent of the violations discovered by these investigations was disappointing,” said then-Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis in a statement after the DOL’s 2012 investigations. “Retailers need to actively ensure that clothes produced in the US for sale to the American public are made by workers who are paid at least the US minimum wage and proper overtime.”
And since 2008, DOL investigators have uncovered dozens of companies producing garments for popular clothing retailer Forever 21 under “sweatshop-like conditions.”
DOL investigations also find dozens and health and safety violations in the garment industry every year. Tuan Phan, a worker at an American Apparel facility in California, died in 2012 after a circular weaving machine turned on while he was trying to remove a jammed roll of fabric. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health cited the company for failing to train workers in proper procedures to follow when repairing such machines.
-- Sarah Tarver-Wahlquist
How to Find Sweat-Free Clothes
1. Buy green: Green America screens clothing companies in the National Green Pages to ensure transparency and due diligence in their supply chains both in the US and abroad.
2. Buy union-made: Labor unions are largely credited with lifting garment workers out of the sweatshop conditions of the early 20th century, and while union membership has decreased in recent decades, unions continue to protect worker’s rights. Today garment workers are represented by UNITE HERE and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Search for union-made clothing at Labor411.org or look for the union label.
3. Buy sweat-free: The International Labor Rights Forum publishes the Sweat-Free Shopping Guide, which includes retailers selling clothing made in the US and elsewhere. Companies must have a demonstrated history of giving workers a significant voice, either through labor unions, worker co-ops, or other means.
4. If you can't find a particular clothing item you need through one of the above options, buying “Made in the USA” is still preferable to buying clothes made in developing countries, like Bangladesh, with known labor problems.
Look for These Labels
A designation from the non-governmental organization SAI, which is applied to factories and farms to show they meet standards for social responsibility and labor rights.UNION-MADE PRIVATE LABELS
These labels indicate that your clothes were made by workers who were allowed to organize and advocate for better wages and working conditions.FAIR TRADE
(Fair Trade Certified, FLO International, Fair Trade Federation, IMO Fair for Life)
These independent certification and membership systems ensure that workers who grow raw materials or who make clothing earn a living wage, labor under healthy conditions, and earn a premium for community development.