By Lisa Han
Carousel photo by Lars Plougmann.
Any decent tour guide in Greenwich Village is trained to point out a certain 10-story neo-renaissance building on 23-29 Washington Place. The Brown Building, now part of the NYU campus, is the site of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that caused the deaths of 146 factory workers. This event alone has gone on to define American conceptions of sweatshops 101 years later, bringing to mind the images of overworked immigrant women hunched over sewing machines in abysmally cramped spaces.
As a result of its legacy, today the fire is seldom brought up without a packaged conversation about the progressive legislation, workplace reform, and women’s rights efforts that followed—the result of which is a virtual disappearance of today’s American sweatshop problem from the public eye.
A memorial on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to a victim of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
Photo by Barbara L. Hanson.
Tracy Kwon, a representative of the tri-state area’s Justice Will Be Served! campaign explains, “The whole shirtwaist narrative is very teleological, kind of like the way Martin Luther King has been co-opted by the government…the reality is, the factories [in New York] were pushed out because the wages got so low that even someone who just came from China wouldn’t work in a garment factory.”
To be fair, no one is denying that sweatshops still exist in the city. While many apparel manufacturers have since moved overseas, American sweatshops have been receiving media attention right up until 2012. For instance, the New York Labor Department’s Apparel Industry Task Force raided the Forest Uniform Corp headquarters in 2009 after uncovering a slew of labor law violations and nearly $500,000 worth of damages. In March of this year, sweatshops flooded the news again when designer superstar, Alexander Wang, was sued for running alleged sweatshops in Chinatown, a case that is still in the works. The difference is that the big stories that tend to fit our image of garment sweatshops don’t give the impression of a problem that is widespread. To most immigrant workers and community activists, these instances hardly constitute modern-day “sweatshop awareness.”
Why? Well, it’s simple: Most sweatshops today don’t look like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory anymore. Garment sweatshops still exist, of course, but it’s not just about Nike, Burberry, or Cache. Sweatshops also take the form of restaurants, pizza delivery services, nail salons, landscaping, car washes, and even exist industries like education and health care.
In her book, Suburban Sweatshops: The Fight for Immigrant Rights, Jennifer Gordon explains, “Jobs in the United States in general have shifted from manufacturing to service; sweatshops have followed suit… Sweatshops may look different in some places today than their predecessors of an earlier era, but in their effect on workers they are often devastatingly the same” (Gordon 14).
In a nutshell, a sweatshop is defined by a large list of employer abuses that include tip stealing, failure to pay minimum wage, health violations, failure to pay overtime, harassment, and age discrimination in addition to the official classifications by the Department of Labor that include structural hazards and child labor.
Certain practices associated with garment sweatshops, such as subcontracting as a way of avoiding legal responsibility for horrific labor conditions, have actually gotten worse with time. The idea behind the practice is that big brand names can subcontract their orders to smaller factories to access cheaper labor and to make it more difficult for workers to organize into trade unions. According to the longstanding Ain’t I a Woman?! campaign, which started with garment workers in the 1980s, subcontracting and the exploitation of contingent workers has now proliferated into the areas such as construction, law, media, service, and IT. Ain’t I a Woman?! Is currently campaigning against sweatshop conditions in the Pactiv Corporation and Reynolds Group Holdings’ New Jersey Factory—the company known for making Reynolds Wrap Aluminum Foil and parchment paper.
Kwon and other members of community organizations that campaign against sweatshop conditions in neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and Chinatown have been using a modern approach to fighting labor violations for quite some time now. Rather than negotiating with employers on a case-by-case basis and starting unions, efforts are focused on organizing workers in a way that puts pressure on all businesses within a certain neighborhood to create better working conditions. A single boycott therefore reflects on a larger organization that not only includes laborers, but also residents, churches, and elected officials. These boycotts are in turn paired with positive incentives, for instance, a pledge for small businesses to join a Sweatshop-Free Zone.
Just last Friday, members of the Sweatshop Free Upper West Side campaign came together to celebrate the one-year anniversary of achievements against sweatshop conditions in the neighborhood, and to galvanize the community for a city-wide battle against Domino’s Pizza.
Among the speakers present at the event were New York State Assembly member Linda Rosenthal, Joan Paylo of Community Free Democrats, and Cynthia Doty of Three Parks Independent.
“Domino’s workers have been subject to overtime violations, they’re not paid properly—the workers make as little as $4 an hour in some cases,” explains Rosenthal. “They don’t get lunch breaks, they work 80-90 hours a week, and they are fired when they stand up for their rights.”
The goal is to treat the Domino’s boycott as archetypal and to encourage other exploited workers both documented and undocumented to come forward with their problems. By reaching small businesses and creating pressure, the community has been able to achieve success beyond what the New York Department of Labor is capable of. According to Kwon, even though organizations consistently work with the state DOL, the process tends to be slow and difficult, especially for those who do not speak English. Even more, a common result is that after receiving some kind of decision or settlement, employers are able to use business law to avoid paying up. Other times, employers have attempted to create divides between documented and undocumented workers by using federal agents to threaten deportation and intimidate whistleblowers.
And sometimes it goes even farther. In 2007, a lawsuit by Saigon Grill delivery workers received unprecedented attention, culminating in a city-wide student occupation of the restaurant in 2008 and an eventual court ruling of $4.6 million in damages awarded to the workers. The owner ended up selling the restaurant, and within a week of new management, the exact same sweatshop practices from before were reinstated.
When it comes down to it, American companies still have a lot of incentive to create sweatshops, and they are terrifyingly easy to start. What the movement does emphasize now, is that they are no longer a problem pertaining only to the 11 million or more undocumented workers in the country. In the age of Occupy Wall Street, even college-educated citizens are exploited.
“It’s not just undocumented immigrants or low-skilled workers who need to organize and look for answers,” says Kwon. “With the economic crisis, everyone’s getting hit.”
1. Gordon, Jennifer. Suburban Sweatshops. Cambridge (Mass.): Belknap of Harvard UP, 2005. Print.