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What is a Sweatshop? - Definition, Conditions & Facts

Instructor: Ashley Kannan

Ashley has taught history, literature, and political science and has a Master's Degree in Education

Every Monday morning, many people wake up and dread going to work. They might see things differently if they had to work in a sweatshop. Read on to find out how bad a job can be.

Definition of Sweatshop

According to Webster's Dictionary, a sweatshop is 'a usually small manufacturing establishment employing workers under unfair and unsanitary working conditions.' In a 1995 Government Accounting Office report on sweatshops, it is described as a setting 'that violates more than one federal state labor law governing minimum wage and overtime, child labor, industrial homework, occupational safety and health, workers' compensation, or industry regulation.' Sweatshops are reminders that the desire for economic wealth can have a dangerous underside.

Conditions in Sweatshops

Sweatshops are defined by telling conditions. The workplace setting is cramped with workers, in order to maximize production. They usually feature 'exposed electrical wiring, blocked aisles, unguarded machinery, and unsanitary bathrooms.' This accompanies minimal ventilation, a lack of temperature control, and insufficient lighting.

Workers in sweatshops experience difficult conditions. They work long hours, sometimes as many as twelve to fifteen hours a day. They are not freely allowed to leave the work area, or in some cases, move around in it. Breaks are not readily given. The work is repetitive, designed to increase output of products at a fast rate of speed. Due to its tedious nature, it has been described as 'rage inducing.'

In order to maintain profit, workers are compensated very little. They do not enjoy much in the way of job security, health benefits, and overtime pay. Workers in sweatshops do not get the chance to socialize with one another, and are financially struggling. It is not surprising to see that children employed in sweatshops do not attend school.

Historical Facts About Sweatshops

The first organized sweatshops appeared in England during the Industrial Revolution. Between 1830 and 1850, the 'sweat system' referred to the production of garments under brutal conditions. 'Sweaters' were contractors companies hired to establish the areas where clothing would be produced. They were seen as 'grinding employers' who 'worked tailors at low wages.' The Imperial Dictionary of the English Language uses this idea as the basis of its explanation of sweatshops: 'The sweater is the greatest evil in the trade: as the sweating system increased the number of hands to an almost incredible extent - wives, sons, daughters, and extra women all working long days.'

Sweatshop in 1890
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As industrialization and urbanization came to America at the turn of the 20th Century, the sweatshop became a part of city life. Those who migrated to the cities from rural areas and struggled to find work, ended up in sweatshops. New York City was one of the first places where immigrants found this work.

One of the most notorious sweatshops was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, in New York's Lower East Side. It consisted of a three-floored space, and a workforce of about 500 mostly immigrant women, some as young as 16. Their compensation was extremely low, and they worked long hours. Their workplace featured very cramped conditions, and locked doors so that the workers could not leave the premises.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
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On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire started on one of the floors. The locked doors became a death trap. Many girls died in the fire or by jumping out of the building. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire inspired public outrage over sweatshops, and initiated progressive reforms towards working conditions, hours, and workers' compensation.

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