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Sweatshop-free or sweat free is a term first used by American Apparel, a famous American clothing brand, which means coercion-free, fair-compensation for the garment workers who manufacture their products. The aim of sweatshop-free wish to ensure that all employees are treated fairly and products are made in good working conditions. Sweatshop-free standards include the right to collective bargaining, non-poverty wages, safe workplaces, back wages, and non-harassment. It has been heavily featured in American Apparel’s advertisements and become a common term in the garment industry.
A sweatshop is a factory or workplace, especially in the garment industry, where workers are employed at very low wages for long hours and under poor working conditions.
Many sweatshop factories in developing countries such as India, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangladesh employ low-pay worker or even child labour around 10–14 years old to work in their factories. These workers are forced to work up to 16 hours a day seven days a week. They do not receive any basic employee benefits such as health care, maternity leave, sick pay and holiday pay from their employers. They sometime make the female workers to take birth control and take regular pregnancy test to stop maternity leave. And these workers only earn 25p an hour which is much lower than the legal national minimum wage. Even labours work long hours everyday, their salaries are usually just enough to cover their basic living cost.
Besides, sweatshop factories usually have harsh working conditions. For example, no rest break, no air-conditioning and workers have to stand for their entire shift. Some workers even had to work in unsafe and hazardous conditions which may causes working injuries or even fatal factory incidents. Take China as an example, in 2009 alone, approximately one million workers were injured at work and about 20,000 suffered from diseases due to their occupation. The reason for this is that the sweatshop factories did not provide any safety guidance for their employees. Lots of sweatshop workers are also suffering from labour abuse, sexual harassment and discrimination in their workplaces. To avoid labours organising protests or any campaign against unfair labour practise, many sweatshop factories find ways to prevent the establishment of the trade unions.
In sweatshop, labours have to work for long hours but receive very low salary which is only half or even less than the legal minimum wage under a harsh working condition. The aim of sweatshop-free wish to ensure that all employees are treated fairly and products are made in good working conditions. Sweatshop-free standards include the right to collective bargaining, non-poverty wages, safe workplaces, back wages, and non-harassment.
Take American Apparel as an example, they provide all employees and their families lots of employee benefits including health insurance, parking, subsidised public transport, subsidised lunches, free on site massages, a bike lending program, a program of paid days off as well as opening an onside medical clinic for their employees. American Apparel make sure that their workers are treated fairly and working in a good working conditions. They pay average skilled-sewers 25,000 US dollar per year and 12 US dollar per hour that twice the national minimum wage, which is in big contrast to 25p per hour wage commonly found in sweatshop factories abroad.
There are a few ways to know that you are buying sweatshop-free clothing:
- Look at the garment label. For example, Unite is an international union which makes sweatshop free clothing.
- Many organisations, for example Green America, publish ethical consumer guides which list their recommendations for sources of sweatshop free clothing.
- The price of sweatshop-free clothing is relatively higher than sweatshop products.
Apple Inc the world's most valuable technology multinational corporation has been accused that their contractors are forcing workers to do overtime involuntarily at sweatshop working conditions and employing underage workers in its factories. Some labourers are forced to work 24 hours at a time and others are forced to stand for their entire shift. And some workers even had to work at unsafe and hazardous condition. In December 2011, 61 workers in the Riteng Computer Accessory Co factory were injured in a gas explosion whilst trialling aluminium iPad 2 back panels. Due to the pressurised working conditions, in 2009, 18 workers who work in Foxconn factory, one of the Apple manufacturer, committed suicide after losing an iPhone prototype. Over next two years, at least 18 other Apple workers try to commit suicide. Besides, undercover Inspectors have been monitoring Pegatron factory, one of the Apple contractor in Taiwan, for five months and found Apple supplier broke 86 laws and regulations including workers are forced to work up to 70 hours per week as well as hiring more than 100,000 underage labour to work on the production lines. These sweatshop scandals strongly affected the reputation of the company.
Primark, a leading high street fashion chain, has been blamed that three of its Indian suppliers are using child labour in their factories. After BBC Panorama’s six months undercover investigation, they discovered the Indian suppliers were sub-contracting middlemen who employed children at Bhavanisagar refugee camp. Investigators found a 9-year-old boy who is working in the refugee camp sweatshop “Sometimes we get major orders in and we have to work double quick. I get paid a few rupees for finishing each garment, but in a good day I can make 40 rupees (60p)” and “The beads we sew are very small and when we work late at night we have to work by candle - the electricity in the camp is poor.”  Primark sub-contractors hired young children to work under poor working conditions, paying them as little as 13p an hour and they have to work up to 48 hours a week. After BBC Panorama investigation discovered that the Indian suppliers had used child labour to carry out embroidery and sequin work, Primark then fired the Indian suppliers.
BBC also reported that TNS Knitwear, a Manchester-based supplier that provide Primark with about 20,000 garment a week, was not only employing illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, but also paying them as little as £3 per hour which is well below than the legal minimum wage but the company has denied all the allegations.
Sweatshop-free legislation and activism
In October 2008, the City of Portland, Oregon passed the "City of Portland Sweatshop Free Procuremenat Policy”  which is the pacific northwest’s first city to adopt this policy. Portland Sweatshop-Free Purchasing Policy requires the local apparel manufacturers to guarantee their garments were produced in workplaces free of sweatshop conditions. Local apparel manufacturers have to disclose their manufacturing facility locations and meet ethical souring practices. Apart from monitoring the local apparel manufacturers, the city also participate and collaborate with public agencies and other non- profit organisation to promote sweatshop free procurement practices  which is institutionalizing meaningful change. A not-for-profit organisation called SweatsHope  aims to produce ethical factories in Kolkata, India to stop human trafficking (women and children), we also aim to create an ethical place of work for the victims of abuse, freeing them from sex trade. This workplace will become a place of refuge, education, childcare and provide a decent wage. They believe Shutting down one sweatshop, will only create less jobs for people who are already struggling with employment, or that another sweatshop will just open up next door. Retailers are always trying to get cheaper manufacturing costs, this is why we need to stand up and demand ethical treatment and wages for staff. If the consumers demand this, and demand an ‘open book’ of their suppliers, we will create a sweatshop free world.
- Child labour
- Minimum wage
- Exploitation of labor
- National Anti-Sweating League
- Nike sweatshops
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