SWEATSHOPS IN AMERICA: FROM THE JUNGLE TO EL MONTE
There have probably been sweatshops since one man first began working for another. The silver mines and galleys of ancient Rome (portrayed to modern audiences in Spartacus and Ben Hur) are two obvious examples. The history of sweatshops in America is much briefer. Indeed, although sweatshops certainly existed before, the term "sweatshop" itself did not appear in common usage until the 1890s. Oddly enough, the general public first began to pay attention to the treatment of workers, not because of any actual incidents, but because of a work of fiction.
In 1907, a California socialist named Upton Sinclair published a novel called The Jungle. The novel described, in harrowing detail, the lives of a family of Lithuanian immigrants in Chicago at the beginning of the century. In sometimes overwrought prose, the book described the various indignities and atrocities inflicted upon immigrants: child labor, long hours, low wages, unpaid work, firings with no notice and no severance pay. What struck the deepest chord in the public, though, was probably the description of the working conditions: cold, filthy, smelly, loud, and unsafe:
There were the men in the pickle rooms, for instance, where old Antanas had gotten his death; scarce a one of these that had not some spot of horror on his person. Let a man so much as scrape his finger pushing a truck in the pickle rooms, and he might have a sore that would put him out of the world; all the joints in his fingers might be eaten by the acid, one by one. ... Worst of any, however, were the fertilizer men, and those who served in the cooking rooms. These people could not be shown to the visitor, – for the odor of a fertilizer man would scare any ordinary visitor at a hundred yards, and as for the other men, who worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting, – sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham's Pure Leaf Lard!
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
If The Jungle portrayed a fictitious picture of the modern sweatshop, the image of the real sweatshop was fixed forever in the public mind on March 25, 1911. On that day, a fire broke out on the 8th floor of the Asch Building in Manhattan.
Among other businesses, the Asch Building housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Co., which made women's clothing. The company employed some 500 workers, most of them women, most of them immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, most of them between the ages of 15 and 25. They worked upwards of 50 hours a week, cutting and sewing fabric to make a popular shirtwaist style of blouses.
March 25 was a Saturday, and work normally ended at noon. However, some 500 workers were still working, eager to supplement their regular weekly wage of $6. When the cry of "fire" broke out, they rushed to the elevators and the stairway. The elevators could only carry 10
passengers at a time, though, and the door to the stairway opened inward. The crush of bodies quickly sealed it shut. Others rushed for the single fire escape, which quickly buckled under the weight. The New York City Fire Department arrived within minutes of the alarm sounding. The firefighters were greeted with the horrific site of employees jumping from the 8th and 9th floors to escape the fires. They were horrified further when they discovered that their hoses could reach only the 7th floor.
The fire was over in only 25 minutes.
The Asch Building still stood; the exterior was fireproof. When the firefighters entered the building, though, and made their way to the Triangle Shirtwaist floors, they found the interior certainly was not. In the end, they counted 146 victims, most inside the building, but many lying where they had fallen on the ground outside. Miraculously, some 350 workers had escaped, many by crawling perilously across a ladder to another building.
The public reacted with outrage. The story quickly spread that the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company had locked the doors to keep workers on the job. Whether this is true has never been fully established, and the owners were later acquitted of criminal negligence. It was clear, though, that the building was unequipped to handle so many people leaving so quickly -- and that the New York Fire Department was helpless against fires in the upper stories of the skyscrapers blossoming across the city. The city responded first with an investigation, and then with legislation designed to prevent future disasters like this. New York City's actions served in turn for legislation across the United States to protect factory workers' health and safety.
Beyond the immediate result, though, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire played an even greater role. Something about the nature of the victims -- young women, new to the country, working long hours for meager pay -- struck a broad chord of sympathy in the public. Demand for laws guaranteeing basic wages and working conditions grew, culminating in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938
One of the most enduring monuments to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal is the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
The act established three basic principles in American labor law: a minimum wage for industrial workers that applied throughout the United States, the principle of the 40-hour week, with time and a half for overtime, and a minimum working age (currently 16) for most occupations. Since 1938, the act has been modified repeatedly, most recently by an increase in the minimum wage in 1996, but the essentials remain. The act, combined with federal and state legislation regarding worker health and safety, has played a major role in eliminating sweatshops in the United States -- or so many had believed.
In August 1995, inspectors of the California Department of Industrial Relations and the U.S. Department of Labor arrived at a small apartment complex in El Monte, California, near Los Angeles. What they found stunned them. Inside the complex, surrounded by razor wire, was a
Locked inside the factory were 72 Thai workers, mostly women and mostly illegal immigrants.
The workers told their liberators that they worked up to 20 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 70¢ an hour. When not working, they slept 10 to a small room. They were prevented from leaving, they said, by locked gates, barbed wire, threats of physical punishment, and their status as illegal aliens.
The discoveries in El Monte shocked the American public in many of the same ways the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire had over 80 years before. That workers could be treated this way in the United States was simply beyond belief. That the workers were immigrants recalled both The Jungle and Triangle Shirtwaist. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich put it bluntly when he described El Monte as " the worst case of slavery in America's recent history."
The El Monte raid galvanized both public opinion and the U.S. government's attitudes. The Department of Labor undertook an aggressive campaign to stamp out sweatshops in the U.S. garment industry. While many retailers had codes of conduct for their suppliers before El Monte, the revelations spurred them to undertake even greater efforts.
Sweatshops still exist in the United States today. Because they do not own the factories from which they buy, retailers can never be absolutely certain that the products they purchase for sale to the public are not the product of sweatshops. However, retailers have been and continue to take strong measures, in cooperation with federal, state and local governments, suppliers, and manufacturers to ensure that the products the public buys are produced in a manner with which we can all be satisfied.