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Four Questions About Sweatshops

Of all the questions I've been asked about sweatshops, there are just four that stand out as the most common and most important. Perhaps you've asked yourself one of these questions. No single answer can address all aspects of this big issue, but the responses I've provided below are a start. They're adapted from a leaflet I developed as a participant in an anti-sweatshop sit-in at the University of Arizona this spring. I hope you find them helpful.



  1. What is a sweat shop? More than a hundred nations have endorsed the UN's Declaration of Human Rights, which reaffirms workers' right to safe and healthy working conditions, to collective bargaining through unions, and to "just and favorable remuneration [pay] ensuring for themselves and their families an existence worthy of human dignity." A sweat shop is a factory that violates these internationally guaranteed standards. The most notorious sweat shop corporation these days is Nike, whose workers in China, Vietnam and Indonesia are paid less than it costs to live on, suffer periodic harassment and torture, and are exposed to cancer-causing chemicals over a hundred times the legal limit. Nike is hardly the only offender, however. In fact, just about any apparel company you can think of engages in some form of sweat shop abuse.
  2. Isn't any job better than no job at all? Sounds like sweat shops are doing their workers a favor! Would you consider it a favor if your boss required you to endure sexual harassment, torture, unliveable wages and serious work-related illness? Sweat shop factories take irresponsible advantage of an already desperate situation. The solution to this problem isn't for abusive factories to pack up and leave poor countries. The anti-sweatshop movement is just asking them to clean up their act.
  3. Why does the anti-sweatshop movement spend so much time focusing on the plight of foreign workers? Don't those protesters care about people working in the United States? To begin with, most movement participants reject the contention that foreigners have less value as human beings than United States citizens. Still, there are lots of reasons to worry about sweatshops even if you're only concerned with what happens inside U.S. borders. Sweat shops help set a standard for labor practices around the world, including the U.S. If it's OK to beat workers in Indonesia, what makes it wrong here? In addition, our new global economy means that American workers compete with foreign workers. When corporations can set up factories elsewhere with poor working conditions and very low pay, they have more incentive to fire current U.S. workers and stop hiring new U.S. workers. Organizations across the country representing U.S. workers have recognized this and joined the fight against sweat shop labor at home and abroad.
  4. So what can I do about it? Good question. There's actually a lot you can do that doesn't take much of your time. Here are a few ideas:
    *Educate Yourself. The more you know about sweatshops, the more you can do. There are a surprising number of books out there that document sweatshop conditions and the relationship they have with American corporations. Click here to read book reviews on sweatshops, then read the books for yourself!
    *Spread the Word. Once you know something about sweatshops, it easy and feels good to let others know too. Spread the word. Tell your friends about what's going on. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. The more people know what's really going on, the better the chances are of putting an end to the abuse.
    *Organize. Don't let your anger about sweatshops brew inside you - do something about it! You don't have to sacrifice your whole life; there are a lot of small ways you can act to end sweatshop labor. If you're at or near a major college or university, chances are there's a chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops. If there's not a chapter at your school, start one! Even if you don't attend a school, where the anti-sweatshop movement is currently centered, you can still get involved. Ask UNITE for their latest information packet on sweatshops, and see if you can gather a handful of likeminded souls. Contact the media and let them know you'll be out to protest. Once you make a public stand, you'll be surprised how many people will come out and get involved.

In all, there's a lot you can do. Perhaps the most important thing to remember in your efforts is this: One person alone cannot make much of a difference, but acting together we can get it done.

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