With so much emphasis on justice and the protection of human rights in this 21st century, it is hard to believe that a substantial number of manufacturers maintain a subhuman environment for their workers. Such is the reality of sweatshops. They continue to pose a great problem globally. In previous issues of JPIC Corner, we focused on modern-day slavery from a general, universal perspective. In this issue we would like to focus on a specific form of modern slavery, that of sweatshops.
Sweatshops refer to “any workplace in which workers are subject to extreme exploitation. This includes not providing workers with benefits, acceptable working conditions, or a living wage...” Consider Flor’s story from The CNN Freedom Project:
Flor Molina thought it was her lucky break. At 28, she had just lost her youngest child and was working two jobs in Puebla, Mexico, but not making enough money to feed and clothe her surviving children. At night, she took sewing classes, hoping to one day earn enough money to properly care for them. “I was so afraid that what happened to my baby would happen to my other three children,” she remembers.
So when her sewing teacher told her about a job in the United States that would pay enough money to support her family and maybe even start her own business, she accepted. She had never been out of the country, and the job meant leaving her children with her mother indefinitely.
Molina and her sewing teacher were flown to Tijuana, where a powerful woman known in Puebla as “la Señora” met them at the border. She confiscated Molina’s documents and clothing for “safekeeping.” “I thought it was strange,” Molina says, “but she had been living in the U.S. for so long so I thought, she knows how things are run.” A coyote took the two women to Los Angeles, where they were immediately put to work in a sewing factory.
Molina’s workday started at 4 a.m., sewing by dim light on the machine. During the regular workday, she ironed, unloaded and reloaded delivery trucks, and stitched labels into dresses—some for major American stores. When the other workers went home, Molina cleaned the entire factory. She was subjected to physical abuse and wasn’t allowed to leave the building unattended. She was, for all practical purposes, a slave. “I thought slavery was only in the books,” she says. “I was surprised to find myself living in it...”
What’s remarkable is what she did with it. Just 40 days into her internment, Molina broke free. She got permission to go to church alone and figured out how to contact a concerned fellow worker who had noticed Molina’s abuse in the shop.
The above story demonstrates the norm of treatment towards workers in sweatshops. Unfortunately many are not able to escape as did Molina. Many sweatshops are maintained within locked doors, surrounded by razor-wire fences with armed guardsmen.
Dehumanization of Workers
Sweatshops are located in third-world countries; however, they can also be found within first-world nations. Unregulated free trade creates an opportunity for sweatshops to thrive within the global economy. Sweatshops are profit-making vehicles for big business. Driven by greed, some giant corporations create “low-cost factories” to market products such as food, commodities, and clothing. Motivated by profit, retailers in the United States, Europe, Asia, and elsewhere establish relations with suppliers. Concern for the health and safety employees is not important, especially in those countries where little or no restrictions are enforced. The 2013 collapse of India’s Rana Plaza is a good example of this practice. The official investigation of the building found that “the upper four floors… were erected without proper permits. Just one day [before the collapse], inspectors ordered the evacuation of the building after uncovering serious structural cracks.
However, the victims—half of whom were women and their nursing children—were threatened with having one’s month’s salary (about $50) deducted if they did not report to work the next day.” Western brands, such as Children’s Place, Benetton, Cato Fashions, and Mango were manufactured at Rana Plaza. There is a tendency, however, for corporations to shy away from taking responsibility for tragedies such this. They claim ignorance on their part, thus focusing the onus of blame and responsibility on the factories. If indeed, violations of human rights are found against American firms, “corporations are only held to negligible fines. That is, the fines they must pay if and when they are caught are minimal compared to the money they save by outsourcing the manufacturing of their goods.”
The life of a sweatshop laborer is a story of misfortune. Firstly, most sweatshop workers are forced into slave labor through large-scale human trafficking operations. Oftentimes, these people are tricked into believing they will receive jobs with a viable salary for decent living. Secondly, for the poor, choosing to work in a sweatshop is often the only alternative for survival of situations where they cannot afford to quit. Thirdly, sweatshop workers are denied basic human rights.
Sweatshop laborers are victims of fear, stress, and anxiety, always under the threats of sexual and physical abuse, harassment, employment dismissal, etc., if they do not meet the demands of the sweatshop rules, which include fulfilling unrealistic quotas per day. Labor hours can range from 60 to as high as 119 per week. Overtime payment is nil. Emotionally, many work in fear because they may be punished for the slightest infraction, either physically or mentally. For example, testimony from Nike employees revealed that they feared infractions for simply using the restrooms or taking a break.
Harassment and Injustice
Harassment is a common form of punishment. A case in point comes from T-Mobile call centers. For not meeting expectations, employees were made to wear dunce caps. For fear of losing jobs, only a few workers have the courage to speak out against these injustices.
The Rana Plaza is an example of the unsafe conditions in which sweatshop employees must work. In addition to faulty building structures, workers are subject to unsafe environmental conditions which include working in dirty and unsanitary conditions, not receiving proper training for operating equipment or using aging and dangerous tools, and being exposed to toxic chemicals.” In Spain, after a three-year investigation, undercover agents made a raid upon a Chinese textile shop where the employees were, “wearing next to nothing while they sewed clothes—the conditions inside the factories unbearably hot.” Additionally, “The conditions found were shocking. Mattresses leaned against walls, ready for the few hours workers were allowed to sleep before returning to work. Some beds were hidden behind bookcases. In the worst cases, the workers ate, slept, worked, and sometimes used the bathroom –all in the same room.”
It was also discovered that most of the workers were the products of China’s trafficking ring. Labels from the shops were popular brands sold in small and major department stores. The stores plead ignorance of the workers’ plight. One-hundred people were arrested in this bust, which included some workers who were being used for prostitution.
As with most victims of social injustice the weight of oppression rests upon women and children. It is estimated that “250 million from the ages of 5-14 are being forced to work in sweatshops.” The majority of these are females. Women compose about 90% of the workforce in sweatshops, most between the ages of 15-28.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church insists that one’s salary, “is the instrument that permits the laborer to gain access to the goods of the earth. Remuneration for labor is to be such that man [woman] may be furnished the means to cultivate worthily his [her] own material, social, cultural, and spiritual life and that of his [her] dependents, in view of the function and productiveness of each one the conditions of the factory or workshop, and the common good.”
Sweatshop salaries do not decrease the poverty rate; on the contrary, they maintain the status quo and contribute more to the unbearable burden and misery of others.
Yet is a scandal to see CEO salaries of firms that make use of sweatshops compared to the earnings of sweatshop employees. It is a glaring contrast between the wealth of the few with the burdensome yoke of those in need. The salaries of sweatshop workers can range from 13 cents to $3.00 per day. In 2012, Nike had been paying its shop workers a wage of $1.60 per day. According to the National Labor Committee, a woman earns 24 cents for each NBA jersey she sews. Meanwhile each jersey is sold on the market for $140. Justifying their position, corporations “falsely claim to be victims of the global economy, when, in fact [they] help create and maintain the [unjust] system.” Sweatshop salaries do not decrease the poverty rate; on the contrary, they maintain the status quo and contribute more to the unbearable burden and misery of others. Workers’ salaries are often used primarily for bare necessities in order to stay alive.
What can we do?
However, corporations can still maintain their huge profit margins and high standard of living even if they raise the workers’ wages. In 2007, Nike’s advertising budget was $678 million. Actually, “Nike could pay all its individual workers enough to feed and clothe themselves and their families if it would just devote 1% of its advertising budget to workers' salaries each year!” In 2012, Nike’s CEO took in a salary of $1.5 million plus a bonus of $2.7 million. An agreed upon remuneration between employer and laborer does not automatically imply a just salary especially when the income of the employee is at the level of barely staying alive.
The church reminds us that “Remuneration is the most important means for achieving justice in work relationships. The just wage is legitimate fruit of work. They commit grave injustice who refuse to pay a just wage or who do not give it in due time and in proportion to the work done.” Furthermore a just income must encompass “a sufficient wage to maintain a family and allow it to live decently.” This includes saving some of the wages for future needs in order to further enhance the dignity of men and women.
American people are noted for their generosity towards the misfortune of others. Many, however, are not aware of the slavery of sweatshops. A study showed that “doubling the salary of sweatshop workers would only increase the consumer cost of an item by 1.8%, while consumers would be willing to pay 15% more to know a product did not come from a sweatshop.” Nationwide surveys show that a good number of Americans “would pay more for goods not produced by sweatshop labor. Those majorities ranged from a high of 86 percent who said they would be willing to pay $1 more on a $20 garment made under good working conditions, to a low of 61 percent who said they would be willing to pay $5 more on a $20 garment not made in a sweatshop.”
A good number of American retailers have a close link with sweatshops. Among them are: Nike, Apple, T-Mobile, Disney, Walmart, Gap, Sears, May Company (Lord & Taylor, Hecht’s, Filene’s), and Federated Departments (Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Burdine’s, Stern’s). Even the United States Military has been incriminated. In this case, the “ federal government's contracts with overseas factories to make uniforms and other apparel are connected to egregious human rights violations, including child labor and union suppression.”
"How many people worldwide are victims of this type of slavery, in which the person is at the service of his or her work, while work should offer a service to people so they may have dignity?" Pope Francis
Pope Francis addressed the issue of sweatshops in his May 1, 2013 message. He said, “I would like to add a word about another particular work situation that concerns me: I am referring to what we could define as "slave labor", the work that enslaves. How many people worldwide are victims of this type of slavery, in which the person is at the service of his or her work, while work should offer a service to people so they may have dignity? I ask my brothers and sisters in faith and all men and women of good will for a decisive choice to combat trafficking in persons, which includes ‘slave labor".
Sweatshops perpetuate a system of exploitation, economic apartheid, and human rights abuses. They are based on an economic system which favors the prosperity of the few rather than serving the majority who are in need, thus preserving the gap between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless. Pope Francis presents a challenge, “Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.
How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion… This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”
The Dignity of Work
Work is a human good. It is a basic human right that reflects men’s and women’s dignity and worth. Therefore, “the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man [woman] and his or her integrity.” Work, whether manual or intellectual involves the whole person. It is “central to the freedom and well-being of people.” Human beings can never be seen as commodities for profit, cogs on a machine, or mere instruments of production.
Human beings can never be seen as commodities for profit, cogs on a machine, or mere instruments of production.
It was during the Industrial Revolution that Pope Leo XIII in 1891 paved the way for justice in the economic order with his encyclical Rerum Novarum (The Condition of Labor). He opposed liberal capitalism, which does not rely on moral principles, and socialism, which suppresses individual freedom. On labor, he noted that, “by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to place upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”
Pope Leo XIII expressed his concern for the poor working class and defended the rights of workers to fair and just treatment as human beings, humane working hours, and safe working conditions. He also affirmed that laborers deserve fair and just wages, and they have the right to private property and decent living. Likewise, workers have a right to form organizations of labor for their advantage. Subsequent papal encyclicals follow up on the condition of labor for their eras.
Jesus’ vocation was to do the will of His Father: “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me to finish his work.” Before his public ministry, Jesus was most likely engaged in manual labor with his father, Joseph the Carpenter. In his public ministry, Jesus used the day-to-day-human work of men and women in his parables to describe the reign of God: householder, merchant, shepherd, farmer, fisherman, steward, servant, and laborer. Indeed, work gives us the opportunity to express and to develop one’s talents for one’s own good and for the good of others.
From a Christian perspective, we can say that work is redemptive because it is a vocation in the service of discipleship. We thus have to remember that work is a human good. It is a human endeavor that expresses a person’s dignity and worth. A person’s work mirrors the work of God and honors the gifts and talents given to him/her by God. One’s work “fulfills the potential inscribed in his nature. The primordial value of labor stems from man [woman] himself [herself], its author, and its beneficiary. Work is for man, not man for work.” Work, whether manual or intellectual, involves the whole person. It is a reflection of a man and woman’s humanity in which they are the hands of God to create and do well for God, self, and others. Therefore, “the human rights that flow from work are part of the broader context of those fundamental rights of the person.” When these are met, laborers will be able to experience the presence of God, a sense of well-being, satisfaction, and sense of accomplishment for self and for others.
Br. Warren Perrotto, M.S.C.
- Have I considered the sources of the goods that I purchase for myself, my family, and my home?
- Am I willing to take a stand against exploitation, even if it means that I have to change my purchasing?
- How can I advocate for those whose dignity and labor are exploited for profit?