The Existence Of Sweatshops Argument Economics Essay


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Essay on Sweatshops

Essay on Sweatshops

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Sweatshops, in short, are now found not only globally but in every pore of production. When ”sweated labor” first won attention in the 1840s, it was thought to be an archaic phenomenon that would yield to modern industry. But actually sweated labor is ancillary to industry, not an outdated survival. Sweatshops encircle the globe because the factory system is global.

The ”sweating system” was originally a form of labor subcontracting in which factory workers enlisted outside helpers. T. J. Dunning of the Bookbinders Union gave a concise explanation in 1860. The factory owner pays a piece wage to the regular employee, the ”sweater,” ”who takes out work to do, at the usual rate of wages, and who gets it done by others at a lower price; the difference, which is his profit, being ‘sweated’ out of those who execute the work.” Sweated labor was thus an adjunct to industry. The sweater worked in a factory with motor-driven machines, but the products often needed finishing touches applied by hand. This led to subcontracting, since semi-finished items could be taken to outworkers for finishing.

The sweater needed only material (furnished by the capitalist) and willing hands. The expropriation of the peasantry ensured that willing hands were available in abundance. And the sweated sub-workers, paid a fraction of the standard piece wage, were not merely exploited but ultra-exploited.

Initially, sweated labor was mainly handwork. Women, children and others crowded into dank cellars and cottages, where they toiled long hours at menial tasks. ”Sweatshop” was not yet a standard term. The sweated workers, many of whom were small children, often called their worksites schools: ”mistresses’ schools,” ”lace schools.” But in the 1860s the sewing machine drove the smallest children out of the sweatshop; this increasingly led sweated workers to concentrate in factory-like sites, often in tenements. Immigration, in the 1880s and after, provided fresh sources of labor. Increasingly, factory owners organized the subcontracts personally, to cut costs but also to undercut unions (by giving work to outworkers, especially Jews and Italians). An anti-sweatshop movement arose fueled by humanitarian and proletarian concerns. Several strikes, by Jewish and Italian seamstresses and male cloak workers, led to breakthrough labor agreements and solidified the garment unions.

Weakened by agitation and legislation, sweatshops faded into obscurity. But after World War II new technology, from computerization to containerization, gave capital enhanced mobility. Globalized subcontracting in many forms, from ”outsourcing” to ”offshoring,” became familiar. ”Feeder plants” funneled into industry in the 1940s. Now the dynamic is to expand indefinitely in every direction. Every production process pulses along a vast supply chain – and most supply chains terminate in sweatshops, especially among new waves of immigrants and in export processing zones. And with the ascent of Walmart and other oligopoly retailers, the global retail sector has emerged as a unifying realm, merging supply chains of all kinds.

This is the present situation, in which sweatshops now serve (in Marx’s phrase) as the factory’s ”external departments” on a worldwide scale. This is plainest in the apparel industry, where the nimble fingers of ill-paid young women apply finishing touches to apparel and accessories in sweatshops all over the world. Globalization includes, and presupposes, the globalization of sweated labor.

Politically, the notion of the ”sweatshop” presupposes the legitimacy of the factory. Only when factories appear ”normal” do sweatshops appear pathological by contrast. Today, the unity of these systems is even more obvious, since the ”sweater” is usually a subsidiary or client of the firm that owns the factories. So, directly or indirectly, factory and sweatshop workers tend to have the same employers. Yet the global chain of links has grown so long that workers have a tough time seeing beyond their own workplace. The evils of sweatshops are easily seen, but the ties that bind sweatshops in Manila to investors in London are less readily visible.


  1. Dunning, T. J. (1860)  Trades  Unions and Strikes. Self-published, London.
  2. Esbenshade, J. (2004) Monitoring Sweatshops. Temple University, Philadelphia.
  3. Marx, K. (1867) [1976] Capital, vol. 1. Penguin, Harmondsworth.

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