Anti-sweatshop movement

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Anti-sweatshop movement refers to campaigns to improve the conditions of workers in sweatshops, i.e. manufacturing places characterized by low wages, poor working conditions and often child labor. It started in the 19th century in industrialized countries such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom to improve the conditions of workers in those countries.[1]


Some of the earliest sweatshop critics were found in the 19th century abolitionist movement that had originally coalesced in opposition to chattel slavery, and many abolitionists saw similarities between slavery and sweatshop work. As slavery was successively outlawed in industrial countries between 1794 (in France) and 1865 (in the United States), some abolitionists sought to broaden the anti-slavery consensus to include other forms of harsh labor, including sweatshops. As it happened, the first significant law to address sweatshops (the Factory Act of 1833) was passed in the United Kingdom at the same time that the slave trade (1807) and ownership of slaves (1833) were made illegal.[2]

Ultimately, the abolitionist movement split apart. Some advocates focused on working conditions and found common cause with trade unions and Marxists and socialist political groups, or progressive movement and the muckrakers. Others focused on the continued slave trade and involuntary servitude in the colonial world. For those groups that remained focused on slavery, sweatshops became one of the primary objects of controversy. Workplaces across multiple sectors of the economy were categorized as sweatshops. However, there were fundamental philosophical disagreements about what constituted slavery. Unable to agree on the status of sweatshops, the abolitionists working with the League of Nations and the United Nations ultimately backed away from efforts to define slavery, and focused instead on a common precursor of slavery – human trafficking.[2]

Those focused on working conditions included Friedrich Engels, whose book The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 would inspire the Marxist movement named for his collaborator, Karl Marx. In the United Kingdom the Factory Act was revised six further times between 1844 and 1878 to help improve the condition of workers by limiting work hours and the use of child labor. The formation of the International Labour Organization in 1919 under the League of Nations and then the United Nations sought to address the plight of workers the world over. Concern over working conditions as described by muckraker journalists during the Progressive Era in the United States saw the passage of new workers rights laws and ultimately resulted in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, passed during the New Deal.[3]

In the late 20th century, with the advent of globalization, movements were formed to protest the exploitation of workers in poorer countries by companies based in wealthy countries. Noam Chomsky said in The Nation that the anti-sweatshop movement is in some ways, he said, "like the antiapartheid movement, except that in this case it's striking at the core of the relations of exploitation. It's another example of how different constituencies are working together."[4] On February 4, 1997 Mayor Ed Boyle of North Olmsted, Ohio introduced the first piece of legislation actually prohibiting the government of purchasing, renting, or taking on consignment any and all goods made under sweatshop conditions and including in the definition those goods made by political prisoners. This legislation was copied by other American cities such as Detroit, New York, and San Francisco. Later Mayor Boyle introduced the legislation to the Mayors and Managers Association where it was immediately passed and he was invited by President Clinton to address a panel studying the subject in Washington, DC.

Contemporary anti-sweatshop movement[edit]

With the rise of globalization and transnational corporations (TNCs) such as Nike or Gap, many sweatshop laborers have lost autonomy and corporations have gained in their invincibility to anti-sweatshop laws within a particular country, as it is incredibly easy for them to simply move to another country if the laws become to restricting.[5] As corporations globalize, many sweatshop movements have begun to see "worker internationalization" as one of the only viable solution; however, this requires strong labor movements, sufficient resources, and a commitment to mobilizing all workers, including women, which can be difficult to do at an international scale, as has been the case in the Americas.[5]

Criticisms of sweatshops[edit]

The criticisms of sweatshops, and thus the reason for an anti-sweatshop movement, deal largely with the lack of safety regulations in sweatshops and their exploitive nature.[6] Matt Zwolinski argues that though technically sweatshop laborers "choose" to work in sweatshops, this decision is not "fully voluntary" and that though sweatshops may provide opportunities that would not otherwise exist, when a worker "consents" to work in a sweatshop, they are also consenting to labor practices that overall cause more harm than good to the laborer.[6] Yet another criticism of sweatshops is the prevalence of child labor working heavy machinery for very low wages, often requiring that they be taken out of school, and thus disrupt their education, and exposing them to vary dangerous working conditions that can endanger their health.[7]


A study published in 2011 found that while in most cases anti-sweatshop movements did not affect sales for companies using sweatshops, they did correspond with a decrease in the sales of well-known, more specialized brands and more intense movements caused more significant reduction in the sales.[8] The same study also found that anti-sweatshop events also seemed to correspond with lower stock prices for the companies that were the target of these events, though some major anti-sweatshop events such the Kaksy lawsuit against Nike, did not result in any discernible change in stock price of the targeted company. The study found that 64.1% of the companies targeted by anti-sweatshop movements saw drops in stock price in the five days following the anti-sweatshop event, and 56.4% saw drops in the two days following the event. Though the study did find these slight negative economic effects, it did not find that, when taking into account companies of all reputations, anti-sweatshop movements or events damaged the reputation of the companies they targeted to a statistically significant degree; however, there does seem to be a slight undercutting of the reputations of companies with positive reputations when they are faced with anti-sweatshop campaigns, particularly intense ones.[8]


Sweatshops offer opportunities that might otherwise not exist[edit]

Some people such as Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nicholas Kristoff argue that the anti-sweatshop movement "risks harming the very people it is aiming to help"[9] because sweatshops signify the start of an industrial revolution in Asia and offer people a path towards making money and escaping poverty that would otherwise not be available to them.[9] The anti-sweatshop movement, in this view, can harm the impoverished workers by increasing labor costs for factories which, in turn, can incentivize turning to technology instead of people for labor and thus reduce the number of employees needed. Additionally, if anti-sweatshop movements succeed and manage to get stricter guidelines passed, companies may move to countries with less strict laws governing sweatshops, thus removing a source of jobs and money for impoverished countries[9]

Increasing regulations or wages would increase unemployment[edit]

Even if a company does not move to another country to find somewhere with more relaxed labor laws, economic demand theory says that the more a good costs, the less the demand for it is. Because of this, it is possible to argue, as some economists have, that even though the labor is "exploitive," it should be permitted, as trying to put regulations on sweatshop labor would only result in sweatshops needing fewer workers, thus reducing opportunities for individuals to make a living.[10]

Anti-sweatshop organizations[edit]

Prominent anti-sweatshop campaigners[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sheila Blackburn (1991) The Historical Journal 34 (1) 43-64 "Ideology and Social Policy: The Origins of the Trade Boards Act"
  2. ^ a b Miers, Suzanne (2003). Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem. Alta Mira Press, Walnut Creek, California.
  3. ^ "Fair Labor Standards Act - FLSA - 29 U.S. Code Chapter 8".
  4. ^ "Talking 'Anarchy' With Chomsky", The Nation, April 5, 2000
  5. ^ a b Armbruster-Sandoval, Ralph. "Workers of the world unite? The contemporary anti-sweatshop movement and the struggle for social justice in the Americas." Work and Occupations 32.4 (2005): 464-485.
  6. ^ a b Zwolinski, Matt. “Sweatshops, Choice, and Exploitation”. Business Ethics Quarterly 17.4 (2007): 689–727. Web...
  7. ^ Hartman, Laura Pincus, and Denis Gordon Arnold. "Worker rights and low wage industrialization: How to avoid sweatshops." Human Rights Quarterly28.3 (2006): 676-700.
  8. ^ a b Bartley, Tim, and Curtis Child. “Movements, Markets and Fields: The Effects of Anti-sweatshop Campaigns on U.S. Firms, 1993-2000”. Social Forces 90.2 (2011): 425–451. Web.
  9. ^ a b c "Two Cheers for Sweatshops". Retrieved 2016-02-26. 
  10. ^ Powell, Benjamin, and Matt Zwolinski. "The ethical and economic case against sweatshop labor: A critical assessment." Journal of business ethics107.4 (2012): 449-472.