Sweatshops Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Since the term “sweatshop” was coined in America during the 1890’s, immigrants and other urban poor, including children, have made up the bulk of sweatshop workers. The term was originally associated with the garment industry but has been broadened to encompass many other small-scale manufacturing and assembling industries. The central common characteristics of sweatshops have been crowded and unhealthy working conditions and low pay and long hours. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Labor defined “sweatshops” broadly as workplaces that violate at least two federal or state labor laws pertaining to child labor, overtime pay and minimum wages, safety and health standards, workers’ compensation, and other matters.

From their first emergence in American cities, sweatshops have been associated with public moral indignation. Attempts to eliminate them have taken many forms, but reformers have agreed that whether sweatshops are located in private homes or factories in the United States or other countries producing items for sale in the United States, they represent a danger to society and should be eliminated.SweatshopsSweatshops[cat]BUSINESS;Sweatshops[cat]LABOR;Sweatshops[cat]CHILDREN;Sweatshops[cat]HEALTH;Sweatshops

Early Sweatshops

Sweatshops first arose in American cities–most notably New York City–during the nineteenth century and were made possible by the large numbers of impoverished immigrants willing to endure poor working conditions for low wages. The earliest sweatshops serviced the garment industry, in which making clothes involved many separate operations that could easily be farmed out to pieceworkers. Working in usually close quarters, each worker in a garment sweatshop typically performed only one or two operations for each garment, which was passed from worker to worker. Many early sweatshops attracted eastern European Jewish immigrants. Later, large numbers of immigrants from Italy and other European regions, such as Bohemia, joined the ranks of sweatshop workers.

During the nineteenth century, criticisms of sweatshops took many forms. Some reformers attempting to close down sweatshops regarded them as alien institutions that had no place in American industry, which they believed should be built on large factories. They also criticized sweatshops for retarding the assimilation of immigrants into American life. Other critics saw sweatshops as threats to families because they employed women who should have been taking care of their homes and children. They also complained about the close proximity in which men and women in sweatshops worked, especially in hot weather, when workers often removed their outer garments. Still other critics feared that workers in such close conditions would breed diseases and worried that the garments the workers produced would spread those diseases, especially Tuberculosistuberculosis, to member of the middle class who bought them.

Garment workers in a New York City sweatshop in 1908.

(Library of Congress)

Wages paid in the sweatshops tended to be extremely low. Employers often paid as little as possible so as to maximize their profits. Nevertheless, despite low pay and poor working conditions, many eastern European Jewish immigrants worked in sweatshops run by other Jews because they preferred to work under Jewish bosses, could speak YiddishYiddish freely while working, and could take off Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. Some immigrants saw working in sweatshops as the first small step toward becoming rich in the New World. Others, however, saw them as inescapable traps. As the work in the sweatshops became increasingly routine, demanding less in the way of skilled labor, immigrants without skills were drawn to work in them.

Modern Sweatshops

The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union[International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union];and sweatshops[sweatshops]International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union eventually managed to unionize many sweatshops and factories and strove to improve their working conditions. However, despite union and legislative efforts to end sweatshop conditions, sweatshops have survived into the twenty-first century.

During the 1950’s, Puerto Rican and other Latin American, African, and Asian immigrants to the United States became associated with the sweatshop’s return. At the same time, sweatshops engaged in producing clothes for American markets began appearing in many of the countries from which the immigrants were coming. Labels in clothes sold in American retail stores reveal the wide range of countries in which they are made–from Central America to Africa to Southeast Asia.

Modern sweatshops in the United States tend to operate on the fringes of the law, ignoring legal workplace standards and hiring both documented and undocumented immigrants. As in the nineteenth century, sweatshops have been particularly common in the garment industry. Occasionally, they make headlines when federal immigration officers raid them to round up undocumented immigrants and discover horrible working conditions in them.Sweatshops

Further Reading
  • Bender, Daniel E. Sweated Work, Weak Bodies: Anti-Sweatshop Campaigns and Languages of Labor. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005. Examination of the ways in which the antisweatshop movement and antisweatshop rhetoric have both helped and hurt workers.
  • Bender, Daniel E., and Richard A. Greenwald, eds. Sweatshop USA: The American Sweatshop in Historical Perspective. New York: Routledge, 2003. Set of essays that treat political, social, cultural, and economic aspects of sweatshops from their beginnings in the United States to their overseas manifestations in the twenty-first century.
  • Fung, Archon, Dara O’Rourke, and Charles Sabel. Can We Put an End to Sweatshops? Boston: Beacon Press, 2002. Critical study of modern sweatshops throughout the world that is concerned with finding ways to make them unnecessary.
  • Hapke, Laura. Sweatshop: The History of an American Idea. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004. Examination of the words used to describe sweatshops to find out what the term “sweatshop” means to the American imagination.

Captive Thai workers

Child immigrants

Economic opportunities


Garment industry

Infectious diseases

International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union

Jewish immigrants

Labor unions

Triangle Shirtwaist fire

Categories: History