American Sweatshops

Broadcast January 18, 2001

A lot of Americans are concerned these days about
sweatshops in Asia and Latin America where poor people cut
and sew garments at cut-rate wages, often in unsanitary
conditions. But you don't need to go to a third-world nation
to find a sweatshop. You can find all the sweatshops you
want right here in the United States, producing a big
portion of the shirts, dresses, blouses, and skirts on the
shelves of big American retailers.

The U.S. Department of Labor, where I used to work,
recently completed its latest survey of cutting and sewing
shops in New York and Los Angeles. The places surveyed were
randomly selected from lists of registered garment
contractors. And here's what the Labor Department found. In
Los Angeles, 61 percent of the cutting and sewing shops
don't give their workers even minimum wages or overtime. In
New York, 65 percent don't provide minimum wages or
overtime. In other words, the vast majority of cutting and
sewing shops in America s largest cities are ... sweatshops.

The Labor Department only surveyed shops that had gone to
the trouble of registering themselves with the state. It
didn't survey any of the thousands of fly-by-night
operations that don't bother to register. Had the survey
included them as well, the percent of sweatshops would have
been much higher.

When I was secretary of labor I visited garment
contractors in several American cities. I saw people crowded
together in small spaces with one bathroom and no fire
exits, people who hadn't been paid in weeks, sometimes
months, and when they were paid it was a mere dollar or two
an hour. People who couldn't complain because their English
was so bad, or didn't dare complain because they feared
being deported.

The sad fact is that there aren't enough government
inspectors to police this industry, and American sweatshops
are as bad and as abundant as ever. But there is something
you can do. Join consumers in demanding the big retailers
you shop in create a system of independent inspectors to
will reassure you and everyone else that the clothing we you
buy wasn't made in an American sweatshop.

It's easy for us to blame foreign countries for
exploiting their workers. It's time we cleaned up our own act here at home.

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